Harry Potter – A History Of Magic

Cover of the exhibition leaflet for Harry Potter - A History Of Magic, running from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Background shows Fawkes, the red and orange coloured phoenix, flying over a page of Latin text, with the text British Library on top in large white letters.

As well as the Harry Potter Studio Tour I explored earlier this month, I was also lucky enough to go to the British Library last Monday, for their exhibition on Harry Potter: A History Of Magic. This has proven to be extremely popular, because all of the tickets are now sold out online for the rest of the run (though it may be possible to get a ticket on the day you go to the library if you’re lucky). So I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to see it. Big thanks to Emily Davison from Fashioneyesta for inviting me to explore it with her, as we had a lovely afternoon.

The exhibition is all about the real-life people, creatures, objects, mythologies and belief systems that provided inspiration and research material for JK Rowling, when she was writing her now hugely popular stories about the boy wizard. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time she had a hard time selling the story to various publishers. But now, 20 years on since the publication of the first book, it is rightly being celebrated as the worldwide phenomenon that it quickly became.

The gallery is divided into various sections, largely based on the subjects taught at Hogwarts School – The Journey, Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Care of Magical Creatures, and Past, Present, Future – with each area containing many fascinating objects, artworks, facts and stories, from all over the world and all throughout history. There’s a huge variety of material here. One of the central highlights of the exhibition is the massive Ripley Scroll, which is full of beautiful imagery and describes how to make the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s really impressive.

The connections to the Harry Potter stories are of course prominent throughout, not just in the object descriptions to explain their significance, and quotes from the books that are displayed on the walls, but also thanks to lots of beautiful drawings and illustrations. Many of which are by Jim Kay, who has created amazing artwork for the Illustrated Editions of the books. Having never seen those editions before, I loved looking at the many examples of his work and early sketches here. Other illustrators are featured as well, who are also great, but Jim Kay is understandably heavily featured.

Most excitingly, however, you get to see some of JK Rowling’s own notes and sketches and drawings as well, which have never been shown to the public before. Indeed, this is the first time the British Library have dedicated an exhibition to a living author. Not only does it give a fascinating insight into her thought processes when writing the books, but she’s also clearly an accomplished artist in her own right. She could have produced her own illustrated copies of the books if she’d wanted to, and they would still be amazing.

The lighting in the exhibition is fairly dim, in order to help preserve the exhibits, especially things like books and other documents that are really old and delicate. But we were able to navigate around safely, and all of the exhibits were lit up so we could see them. We were able to get close up to many of the illustrations and sketches, because they were simply hung up on the walls, so that was great. Other items were in glass cases, understandably, but we were still able to see them, and I used my monocular to look at the details close-up if I needed to.

The text panels for each exhibit were displayed in the same way – i.e. on the walls next to the illustrations, so you could get close to them, or inside the glass cases below the objects, which meant you couldn’t get near them. So it was easier to read some labels than others. However, that didn’t matter, because I picked up a large print book at the start of the exhibition, and that contained the text for every single panel. It’s divided into the same sections as the exhibition, and follows the labels in order, so it’s quite easy to find the text you want. So that was extremely useful and very interesting, and therefore really helped to enhance the experience.

We didn’t do every item in order, because it was quite busy in there, and a few people seemed to be spending ages looking at particular exhibits, which can be a bit frustrating for the people queuing behind them to have a look as well. So if one cabinet looked a bit crowded, we just picked another one instead that we could get to. It meant I had to jump around the large print guide a little bit as a result. But because of its clear division into sections, and the fact that each item had its own page, it wasn’t difficult to flick through to find the text that I needed each time. So it worked out nicely, and I’m really pleased the British Library went to the effort to produce that, as it allowed us to get the maximum enjoyment out of the exhibition and not miss out on anything.

The RNIB also helped them to produce books with tactile images and braille descriptions for 14 of the exhibits, which is cool. We didn’t use it, but I love the fact that they’ve done that. And the charity VocalEyes have also done an audio described tour, but that sold out really quickly so I wasn’t able to book on to it. But I don’t mind that, because being able to use the large print guide and my monocular meant I was able to have a good look at everything, so I was happy.

So Emily and I both really enjoyed the exhibition, as it gave a wonderful insight into the creation of the books and the history connected to many of the things featured in them.

I also bought the related documentary DVD on Amazon earlier this month, which is about the real life magical practices from history that have connections with Harry Potter. And it’s really interesting. It features objects from the exhibition, as well as interviews with JK Rowling and readings from the books by actors who have appeared in the films. So it’s fascinating and fun to watch, and complements the exhibition really well.

So it all made for a lovely follow-up to the studio tour I went on recently, meaning it’s been a good month for Harry Potter related stuff, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it all.

I haven’t got anything else planned that relates to the series at the moment, but I’m sure there will be more at some point. In the meantime, I have started listening to the audiobooks once more, as all of this has got in the mood to hear the stories again. So that’ll keep me occupied on the Potter front for a little while!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger, culture vulture & accessibility advocate, with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

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