The Magic Behind Harry Potter – Spellbinding

Once upon a time, in 1997, Nigel Newton, then an editor at England’s Bloomsbury Publishers, gave his eight year-old daughter Alice a copy of a book that had been submitted to enough publishers that its author was able to paper a wall with rejections. Her review: “The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it’s possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year-old could ever read.” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had been submitted to so many publishers, its author papered a wall with rejections.

Five hundred million copies later, we find ourselves at the 20th Anniversary of Scholastic’s U.S. Publication under its ostensibly more accessible name, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.  In celebration, The New-York Historical Society has imported Harry Potter: A History of Magic from The British Library, with contributions from both venerable institutions, additional museums, and 20 pieces from J.K. Rowling’s own collection. The latter includes in part, her own very good preliminary drawings, character charts, manuscripts and  a chapter from Chamber of Secrets involving mermaids that was cut from the book. (You can read it in full.)

Jacket art for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by Mary GrandPre Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive

Preparations were so secret that British Library curators Alexander Lock and Tanya Kirk couldn’t speak about it to anyone not involved. Laying out the exhibition, they requested a photo and measurements of the model Set from Harry Potter and The Cursed Child (currently on both The West End and Broadway). Instead, they received a shot of a ready-for-mailing box apparently containing it. The New York show opens almost a year to the date it debuted in London.

The two traveled across the pond with the library’s John Andrews to shepherd the show. I attended a lively talk and several days later toured the exhibition.

Lock and Kirk enthusiastically spoke about how the collection was assembled and exactly what they hope to illuminate – Lumos! (Actually a light spell rather than one of understanding.) It’s a matter of making the written word come alive, filling the space with design and ideas, we’re told. Lock displayed a chart of everything taken into consideration, a master class in curating.

One particularly interesting note is that most magic originates with “dead white men and witches.” Those putting together this compendium are consciously trying to represent as many cultures as possible. International sources are tapped.

In the course of research, Lock even journeyed to The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, England. “To get there you have to cross the Bodman Moor and go down into a valley where there’s no phone service. Witches and wizards happily welcome you at a small cottage.”

Broomstick belonging to Olga Hunt – Museum of Witchcraft, Bostcastle

Borrowed items from that depository include an exploded cauldron (pieces found on a beach when witches fled), a broom (transit donated by former owner Olga Hunt, often seen zipping over the moors), a serpentine wand (“the wand that got away,” I’m told, couldn’t travel because of fragile phoenix feathers), and gardening tools made out of antler and bone which required separate licenses to bring into this country. Loans from this museum had to be limited as records of provenance were scarce.

Here’s the history of magic behind the fantastical world of Harry Potter, broken down into Hogwarts-like courses – a small taste of the exhibition. Duck! Flying books.

Pass through an arched portal between two owls from New York’s original Herald Tribune building into an anteroom on Beginnings. There are formal paintings of Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall (with hidden magical symbols (note – one of Professor Severus Snape features a Lily in honor of Harry’s mother), Rowling’s statements about her 1990 inspiration, Alice’s review…

Jacob Meydenbach (H)ortus Sanitatis  – Mainz 1491 – British Library Board

Potions: the first ever 1489 printed book on magic roughly translated as Witches and Soothsayers is on view. One plate offers the first image of a witch’s cauldron. Apparently the book was published in hopes of dissipating fear, and declares, unfortunately in Latin, that only when in league with the devil are witches to be feared, and that authorities would handle those occasions. Because only an elite few understood the language however, illustrations provoked the reverse effect – people panicked.

There’s also a history of drugs by the chief apothecary of Louis IV recommending, among other curatives, use of a Bezoar Stone (undigested matter from the gut of the animal). Goat matter is preferable only because that of apes, as Nicolas Flamel noted, is so hard to secure. Lock admitted to sending for a Bezoar (an internet purchase) which is safely in his London office drawer. There are two visually interactive potions bowls. The one I tried created a digital brew to protect from night goblins.

Alchemy: The illustrated 16th century Ripley scroll instructs how to make a Philosopher’s Stone by combining three others into an Elixir Vitae (of life) that turns base metal into gold. Three stones as pictured are white, represented by Albus (Dumbledore), red, for Remus (Lupin) and black, of which Severus is symbolic. “Rowling is very knowledgeable,” Lock commented.

Left: Detail of The Ripley Scroll, England ca 1570 – Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – Yale University                                                                                       Right: Tombstone of Nicolas Flamel- Paris 15th century – Musee de Cluny

The tombstone of the real Nicolas Flamel was secured from a museum that collected it after a church crumbled. Said to be an alchemist and the owner of the Philosopher’s Stone, both in the books and purportedly real life, he was, in fact, a wealthy landlord who died in 1614. Subsequently Flamel’s grave was found to be empty. Many believe he’s still alive in India. There’s a fabulous panorama of Daigon Alley and an actual invisibility cloak – apparent with a shimmer if you look out of the corner of an eye…

Herbology: A wonderful 18th Century parchment illustrates how to safely excavate a mandrake (pictured as a man) which was both used as an anesthetic for operations and caused hallucinations. Uprooting involved an ivory stick, a dog, something with which to stuff your ears, and a horn. A real mandrake is in the case. Culpepper’s Physician Herbology, one of the first of its subject written in English, was, in the 16th century,  the first book of medicine published in the U.S. Rowling used it as a reference, particularly in aid of Sybill Trelawney.

Giovanni Cadamosto’s Illustrated herbal – 15th century – British Library Board (mandrake extraction)

Charms: The first recorded example of Abracadabra appears in a 17th century spellbook. “The idea was that it could cure malaria by writing it out and wearing the paper.” Also in the book are experiments on how to become invisible, one specifically oriented to “how to get ladies to touch you in your sleep.” (This last, we’re told, was omitted from the exhibit lest a ‘don’t try this at home’ admonition had to be posted.) There’s a love charm painted on an oyster shell, scrolls to be worn in ornate cases, talismans…

Detail Liber Medicinalis- Canterbury 13th century- British Library Board

Astronomy: Here we’re treated to priceless pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s astronomical notebooks, an 18th century orrey, and the earliest star chart (700 AD) from civilization (Chinese). Evidently its owner pretended to be a woman to sell the latter, thinking women would be more interested… “just as J.K. Rowling hid her name to seem popular to boys.” The solar system hangs above. Constellations, some used by Rowling as character names, are illustrated and described…

Divination: Oracle bones (the earliest artifacts in the exhibit) are on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There’s a Crystal Ball once owned by a witch called Smelly Nelly who believed strong perfume would attract spirits, and pages filled with pictures of assorted facial wrinkles which told character and fortune. An interactive Tarot Reading utilizes three projected cards. Its description of me was quite accurate.

Left: Oracle Bone China ca 1600-1046 BCE- Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of A.W. Bahr 1923                                                                                                                                Right: Black Moon Crystal Ball- 20th century- Museum of Witchcraft, Bostcastle

Defense Against the Dark Arts: A 12th Century Bestiary shows how to capture a snake/ serpent pictured with a precious stone embedded in its forehead. Instructions are to sing it to sleep and remove the stone rendering the creature harmless. Basilisks are discussed, drawings exhibited. The legendary reptile is reputed to be a serpent king who can cause death with a single glance.

In Harry Potter, the Basilisk was first bred by hatching a chicken egg beneath a toad. Tom Riddle was the only one who could command Salazar Slytherin’s Basilisk, while Potter had no control over it. Ancient illustrations are contradictory. In one, the creature looks like a chicken, in another a dragon.

Portrait of Professor Remus Lupin by Jim Kay on loan from Bloomsbury Publishing

Care of Magical Creatures: We see the remains of a merman which, alas, was proven to be parts of a fish and a chicken with a wooden head and a copy of the epic 16th century poem Orlando Furioso depicting a griffin and hippogriff. (In Potter, Buckbeak.) There are illustrated texts on dragons who were said to speak “the language of origin” = Parseltongue? and unicorns, the use of whose horns was powerful medicine. One incredibly long horn may, of course, have come from a narwhale.

Audubon paintings of owls, much like Harry’s Hedwig, precede models of reconstruction of The Lyric Theater in New York and a Stage Set from Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.

John James Audubon Snowy Owl 1829- New York Historical Society, Purchased by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audobon

The only missing lesson is Transfiguration – because “it’s not in The British Library!” Lock did unearth a manuscript describing an Ethiopian spell which involved incantations that directed tying a piece of silk to oneself: to your head-turn into a lion, to your arm-become a python, to your shoulder-become an eagle. The scholar points out that traditionally a spell for reversing transfiguration could be only found in a second piece of writing, assuming if someone needed it, he or she would know where to find it. Problematic at best.

Wand Lore is also absent for the sole reason Rowling said she made it all up. The curators did find one made of phoenix feathers, “the wand that got away,” but feathers don’t travel well, so it wasn’t imported.

At the end of your visit, there’s a large shop of memorabilia including some pretty nifty posters and a hardcover exhibition catalogue that looks fascinating.  Elsewhere in the main hall, view four illustrators’ takes on Potter and costumes from Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. Oh, and there’s an enormous trunk. Read the sign, watch the video.

Taking really young children to this might be tricky as the exhibit is best enjoyed when explanations are read and if not put into historical context, at least related back to the wizarding world. Scholarship is terrific, visuals varied and intriguing. A Potterite should be tall enough to see into cases and old enough to enjoy more than book references. Having said that, I had a wonderful time.

A wealth of programs is scheduled for both adults and children, many with food and drink offered. These include, in small part: Harry Potter Trivia Nights, Owl Walks/Talks in Central Park, a six session International History of Magic, Magic for Muggles, Illustrating Harry Potter, Halloween: An Evening of Magic, Alchemy with Donna Bilak, Fantastic Beasts, and much more.

For all of us who marveled at J.K. Rowling’s achievement and took the journey reading or being read-to with unforgettable pleasure, The British Library and New York Historical Society are pulling back a curtain behind which, instead of a wizard, we find endless more magic.

A special audio tour to accompany the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at New-York Historical, featuring Natalie Dormer, will be available to ticket holders as a free Audible download, offering in-depth content on fascinating objects throughout the exhibition galleries.

All quotes are Alexander Lock
All photos Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society
Opening Illustration: Study of the phoenix (Fawkes) by Jim Kay on Loan from Bloomsbury Publishing

Harry Potter: A History of Magic           
October 5, 2018- January 27, 2019
Reservations HIGHLY recommended
The New-York Historical Society  
170 Central Park West at 77th Street 

About Alix Cohen (602 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.