This fall, our version of the British Library’s exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic has truly transformed our Museum into a place of wonder and wizardry. (There’s even a castle in our lobby!) How did this fantastic, spellbinding exhibition come together? Rachel Walman, assistant director of DiMenna Children’s History Museum, sat down with two curators from the British Library—Tanya Kirk, lead curator of rare books (1601–1900) and Alexander Lock, curator of archives and manuscripts—who shared with us how they put together this extraordinary exploration of history, myth, and magic.
Rachel: First things first: Were you Harry Potter fans before working on this exhibition?
Tanya: I was! I read them all as they came out, so I’m from the generation who kind of grew up with them and was always a fan and queued up at midnight and did all the stuff that people did when they were coming out. And then Alex is a new fan.
Alex: Yeah, I’m of the same generation but somehow it missed me, so I’ve come to love them through researching them for the exhibition. I really enjoy the books now.
Rachel: Glad to hear that! So then, the second most important question: What Hogwarts house are you in?
Tanya: We’re both in Hufflepuff.
Rachel: And proud! As you should be. So how did this all originate? And how did you guys become part of the team that made this happen?
Tanya: We started talking about the exhibition around 2015 because we knew that it was going to be the 20th anniversary [of the first publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone] in the UK in 2017, and we wanted to celebrate that. So we came up with structuring the exhibition around the subjects that they learn at Hogwarts really early on cause that seemed to fit really well with our collections and enabled us to bring out the stories.
Alex: It’s a great exhibition for not only showcasing the British Library’s collections but also exploring magic across the world in relation to Harry Potter, which people really love, adults and children, and I think those two aspects of it really drew together. But also Harry Potter originated as a book—it’s what drew lots of people to reading—and it just seemed that the British Library was the natural place for that.
Rachel: Do you remember the moment when somebody came to your desk and said you’re going to be on the team to curate this exhibition?
Alex: I remember being told, “We want you to do this big exhibition, but it needs to be kept secret for a little while.”
Tanya: Yeah, we weren’t allowed to tell anyone we were working on it for about the first—I can’t remember how many—like three months or something? So we were surreptitiously looking at the Harry Potter books at our desks, thinking, are our colleagues going to think we’ve lost it?
Alex: Yeah, reading Harry Potter behind a newspaper—literally these sort of things were happening.
Rachel: I saw some figures thrown around that there’s 200 million objects in the British Library collections, and you had to choose just 150 items for this exhibition. What was that like? What were the moments of anguish selecting the precious chosen few?
Alex: It was very difficult, wasn’t it. I mean, at the beginning part of the process we would get images of what these things look like and put them on boards to see what they look like juxtaposed with each other, to see how they come together. So for instance, mandrake manuscripts—we have numbers of those—and we had to choose just one! That was very difficult with some difficult conversations with other curators who would have favorites.
Tanya: Yeah, so you have to try and find the one that’s visual and has the best story behind it, that you think will engage people in different ways, because sometimes you have things that have an amazing story behind them, but it’s just text. Even the best story in the world—people are not going to be as excited by that as they will something that’s got amazing visual impact.
Rachel: What did you end up learning about the different subjects that was interesting or surprising?
Tanya: I knew a little bit about the history of alchemy and the fact that people were trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. But I didn’t realize that there was so much documentation in existence about that process. And I hadn’t ever heard of the Ripley Scroll, which is something that’s shown in the exhibition, which is a huge, illustrative instruction manual to make a Philosopher’s Stone.
Alex: It’s about 20 feet long.
Tanya: Yeah, and it takes you through all the stages, but they’re all explained in quite mysterious ways, so I don’t know if you could exactly…well, you couldn’t exactly follow it! But it’s interesting that someone did. If you look at it, you think well maybe someone did do this, and they worked out that these are the stages you need to go through.
Alex: I suppose my one favorite things in the Potions and Alchemy section is the bezoar stone. In the books, Harry uses one to save Ron’s life. But, you know, they are real things, and they were collected widely from the Middle Ages up through the early modern period, up to the 18th century. We have published books that are on display about how to use them and which ones were the most powerful. And I also learned there’s matter that forms in the guts of particularly bezoar goats…and you can get them! And I got quite excited about this, and I did buy one on eBay for myself, which my girlfriend wasn’t really totally happy with. It passed through a llama and comes from Peru.
Rachel: Does it smell?
Alex: Not so bad, but some people don’t really like touching it when I try and pass it around the office. But yeah, the bezoar stones are my favorite. It originates from a Persian phrase pad-zahr, which means “expel poison” and is considered a universal antidote to all poison.
Rachel: Now that you got to study all these subjects so intensively, if you were at Hogwarts, in which subjects would you be the top of the class? And which ones would you fail? Or at least not do as well…
Tanya: I love Care of Magical Creatures because I just love animals, and I love the Fantastic Beasts films, and so I think I would definitely be good at that.
Alex: For me, like Tanya, I’d love to do Care of Magical Creatures. I think being with the animals and being with Hagrid would be amazing because Hagrid is probably one of my favorite teachers. I think the one I’d flunk (or not do so well in) would be Charms or Divination. Divination probably because I don’t know if I really believe in it as an art. I certainly don’t think I have the “second sight,” so I think I’d probably do pretty badly. I’d probably see my reflection and be like Harry and predict people’s death last week or something.
Tanya: I actually think I would be bad at Potions because I was quite scared of chemistry at school. I was always constantly worried that I was going to get burned by acid or like set fire to by the Bunsen burners or something like that—so I don’t think I’d be that good at Potions.
Rachel: Oh yeah, that makes sense. Speaking of fear, the Harry Potter books are known for being both light and dark, funny and serious, so I’m wondering—were there any objects that really made you laugh? Or that, in handling them and choosing them, just totally creeped you out or sent a shiver down your spine?
Tanya: Oh, the cauldron is definitely creepy…
Rachel: You feel like you’re in the presence of something magical?
Tanya: Yeah! We borrowed a cauldron [for the exhibition] from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in the UK, and it was used by some witches in the mid 20th century. They were trying to summon this kind of magical demon and the spell went wrong and the cauldron blew up. And the cauldron is as it was after the explosion—it’s all covered in tar.
Alex: Yeah, it is amazing. But in relation to light and dark and things, we have lots of objects relating to snakes, and they have very strong symbols in magic about light and dark power and about regeneration and renewal because they shed their skins. So they can be both protective but also destructive, and I think they sum up nervousness—contemporary nervousness—about magic quite well, which the books also hint at very strongly.
Tanya: The other thing that really makes me laugh is this book about basilisks, which has the funniest picture of a basilisk. So you know they’re presented in Harry Potter as being these like properly terrifying, awful snake creatures that can kill you with a single look—but we’ve got this book from the 18th century that shows a basilisk and it just looks really cute.
Rachel: Haha! So what are you guys most excited about now that it has traveled to the U.S.?
Alex: The exhibition very much has the same ambience and magic of the exhibition at the British Library, but also it’s being augmented by about 50 items from New-York Historical Society as well as other lenders around the U.S., which I think really enriched what we’ve got, and it does speak, I think, to an American audience through those items.
Tanya: I mean there’s things that we didn’t have in the London version that are here—like you’ve got a real unicorn horn, which is a narwhal tusk borrowed from the Explorer’s Club, and it just looks amazing. It’s such an incredible object, and I think it really announces that section of the exhibition.
Alex: And you guys have got the original paintings of Audubon’s Birds of America. Back in the UK we had the book, but not the original painting. So that’s a way in which coming here has helped augment the show and really strengthened it and shown the collaboration between the two institutions, which has been great. I think that’s what’s really nice, isn’t it.
Rachel: Okay so final question: Imagine this same exhibition is mounted 200 years from now when Harry Potter is still being published in some way. What objects do you think are going to get added? What is a magical thing from right now?
Alex: See I love this question, it’s a really cool question. Because around New York I’ve seen there are lots of palmistry places—on the subway there are postcards advertising, “I can read your fortune,” and then there’s palmistry shops and stuff. So maybe a postcard from New York subway advertising palm reading from 2018 or maybe someone’s crystal ball from a shop downtown, of which there are many.
And I think what I suppose really excites me about curating this is that you do start to look out for magic today, and it is still very contemporary. It’s still a very strong tradition the world over, and I think that’s something that the exhibition shows—people have believed in magic for centuries across time and place for millennia, and they’re still performing it now.
Tanya: I feel like also we should be able to make some kind of link with Herbology because people are always going back to those kind of folk remedies and finding that actually there is something in some of them.
Rachel: So true! Thank you guys so much for chatting. Anything to add that you feel you just needed to say?
Alex: Well, I feel like we should tell you how to uproot a mandrake safely according to the manuscript.
Rachel: Please, tell us!
Alex: In the exhibition, you’ll see a 15th-century Italian manuscript that shows you how to uproot a mandrake. So obviously in Harry Potter the students are given earmuffs, but the in the 15th century you didn’t have earmuffs! So the way to do it is to stuff mud in your ears, tie your dog around the mandrake root, and blow a large trumpet. Now the large trumpet will frighten the dog and cover up the scream of the mandrake as the dog runs and pulls up the root. There you have it. So everyone can now do it safely.
Rachel: Is the dog going to be okay?
Alex: I personally think the dog will be okay, I think the trumpet will save the dog—that’s what I think.
Tanya: We like to believe the dog is fine.
Come see that manuscript and many more magical treasures in Harry Potter: A History of Magic before it vanishes on January 27!