If the New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” were a character from the $25 billion franchise, it would definitely be a Hermione. Studious and steeped in the real-world magical history that provides the lifeblood of the series, the exhibition orbits the world of Harry Potter with fantastical flourishes while exploring the mythologies and folklore that J. K. Rowling utilized to pen the series.
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the American publication of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first of seven books in the series, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” comes to the New-York Historical Society after a record-breaking run at the British Library in London last fall. And while the show is certainly geared toward those who grew up with and love Harry Potter, those immune to the pervasive Potterdom will find plenty of historical treasures and artifacts to hold their attention.
After all, part of the charm of Harry Potter is how Rowling infused magic into the everyday. In her land of muggles (non-magic possessing folk) and wizards, sometimes to see magic is simply to be observant, to look at things through a different lens. Here, trains arrive on platforms just out of view; tea leaves predict grim outcomes, and mirrors reflect our deepest desires.
Similarly, the strength of the Historical Society’s exhibition is how it frames ordinary life as enchanted — demonstrating, through a thoughtful juxtaposition of historical and fictional items, how the roots of magic spring from religion while the resulting branches extend to modern scientific methods of understanding our world, like chemistry, botany and psychology.
Structured by the classes that a student would have taken at Hogwarts, the wizarding school that serves as the backbone to the series, the exhibition sorts historical artifacts according to Harry’s world, breaking items into sections like “Herbology,” “Charms” and “Defense Against the Dark Arts.”
Items of note from these rooms include a bezoar stone encased in a gold filigree case, alchemist Nicolas Flamel’s gravestone, Yale’s 20-foot-long Ripley Scroll (which illustrates how to make a Sorcerer’s Stone), Olga Hunt’s real-life broom, Smelly Nelly’s crystal ball, oracle bones, the requisite James Audubon snowy owl portrait, a merman, a leaky cauldron and several written accounts of witches, tasseomancy and charms (including the first-known printing of the magical word “Abracadabra”).
And while this sort of mystical exploration grants a look into the history of magic, Rowling’s manuscripts, original drawings and other Potter-related ephemera scattered throughout the exhibition allows gallery-goers to gaze into the creative process that gave life to the Potter series. Here, guests can see Rowling’s looping and hurried handwritten chapters, her edits on typed pages and even an example of her famously meticulous plot outline (taken from her fifth book for the purposes of this exhibition).
There is also plenty of original artwork on display, including Rowling’s hand-drawn experimentations with what she wanted the sorting hat to look like and her depictions of Harry and his friends, in addition to the original pastel drawings that Mary GrandPré created for the American editions of the books.
The show is not without good-natured gimmicks, incorporated, it seems, to hold the attention of younger audiences. For example, guests can make their own potions in digital cauldrons. There’s also an invisibility cloak, displayed behind Plexiglass on a metal hanger (you cannot actually see the cloak, because it’s invisible, of course) and a snitch that buzzes around the room containing Olga Hunt’s broom (an allusion to the series’ popular broom sport, Quidditch).
After working through these gallery spaces, passing down a long hall lined with book covers and illustrations and meandering through the Potter-dedicated gift shop, patrons enter into a room that features costumes worn in the immensely popular stage production “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — a show that, with its intricate design and confounding stage magic, brings much of the topics and items displayed in the exhibition to life once more.
“Harry Potter: A History of Magic” is on view through Jan. 27, 2019.
Top Image: Jacket art for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." US, 2007. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate. Archive illustration by Mary GrandPré. © 2007 Warner Bros.