Last Friday the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition opened at the British Library. It is a much anticipated showcase of Harry Potter artefacts, including many from the vaults of Bloomsbury and J.K. Rowling herself. It also offers a fantastic chance to see some of the British Library’s most rare, historic, and difficult-to-display items.
We visited the British Library to talk to co-curator Tanya Kirk about the challenges of putting on the exhibition, the pioneering elements of the project, and the magical experience of curating material about one of the world’s biggest book series.
The exhibition involves a number of artefacts that have never been on display before because they’re so difficult to handle. One of the books in the exhibition is John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, featuring illustrations of every native bird in America, drawn at full size. This means the book is the size of the largest bird included – 3 ¼ feet (1m) tall. Tanya explained that it can’t often be displayed because it takes four people to lift it. “We had to have a special case made for it, because it didn’t fit in any of our other cases.”
Another challenging piece is a huge celestial globe, dating from 1693, which depicts the constellations. “It didn’t go through many of the doors,” Tanya said. “You have to plan the route very far ahead of time; measure all the doorways.”
One of the biggest challenges for the curators was working on an exhibition that will have to travel around the world – it will be opening in New York in October 2018.
“We’ve done touring exhibitions in the UK,” Tanya said, “but we’ve never done one abroad, and it’s a much bigger scale than what we’ve done before… At one point we were working on both exhibitions at the same time. It was a bit confusing actually!”
The collaborations in this exhibition were also a new challenge. The curators normally work alone on exhibitions, but this one involved collaborations with Bloomsbury, Google Arts and Culture, The Blair Partnership, and J.K. Rowling herself, as well as other museums and libraries. Julian Harrison, lead curator of the exhibition, said that attempts to borrow a garden gnome from The Garden Museum went particularly poorly, as they were initially offered a David Cameron gnome – however another gnome was eventually secured instead.
Google and the British Library have a long standing relationship, but their partnership on this exhibition was a first. Suhair Khan of the Google Cultural Institute said that the collaboration was a natural one, as adding Augmented Reality to the exhibition would bring a magical element through technology. Google worked on digitising the celestial globe that features in the exhibition, allowing visitors to explore it.
Tanya said, “We obviously can’t spin the globe in the exhibition, and it’s beautiful all the way round, so it seemed like the perfect solution to be able to digitally spin it and see the other side.”
Another of the exhibition’s innovations is a sector-first partnership between 20 public libraries in the UK, who will present panels inspired by the exhibition alongside their own collections, highlighting regional connections to magical traditions and folklore, and allowing a full network of libraries from Edinburgh to Portsmouth to share ideas and inspire their patrons.
The exhibition has given the curators chance to explore the magic of the British Library collections in a whole new way, making new connections between artefacts and digging into uncharted depths within the archives.
“We have got far more books about magic than I thought we did,” Tanya said. “There was one hilarious day where I just found a whole rack of shelves that were all about magic in the basement here. There was just so much to choose from!”
The curators narrowed down a huge longlist of items to the most exciting and visually appealing, from a 3000 year old cauldron found in the Thames, to a black moon crystal belonging to a witch called Smelly Nelly.
“My favourite thing is the brief history of the Basilisk,” Tanya said. “It’s got this hilarious illustration, in which the Basilisk looks totally unfrightening, but the description of it is terrifying, so the two things don’t match at all.”
For a Harry Potter fan, working on the exhibition was a magical experience. One of Tanya’s highlights as a long-time fan of the series was going through Bloomsbury’s safe of papers, and Jim Kay’s illustrations; apparently there were “lots of geek opportunities”.
But probably the most magical part of the exhibition is learning about the ways in which the Harry Potter books are grounded in reality and history.
“I’ve learned that there’s a lot more historical basis in the Harry Potter books than I’d thought,” Tanya said. “So things like Nicolas Flamel, that we’ve got a big feature on, I don’t think I’d fully appreciated that he was a real person and that his wife was a real person. It was a bit mind-blowing actually, that it is all based on things and not just totally imaginary.”