You don’t need an excuse to visit the British Library, which is a wonderful building full of fabulous things, but an exhibition devoted to Harry Potter is certainly an easily justifiable one, especially with ’20 treasures’ from JK Rowling’s personal archive as an extra incentive.
The exhibition is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and is a combination of treasures from the British Library (rare books, manuscripts, ‘magical’ objects) and behind-the-scenes material from Rowling and artists who contributed to the visualisation of the world (notably Jim Kay).
The gallery has been beautifully designed to reflect the Harry Potter aesthetic – I wish we were allowed to take photographs inside, but it was prohibited – and has been split into sections dedicated to classes at Hogwarts (Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defence Against the Dark Arts and Care of Magical Creatures), with two sections at the start and finish to provide, respectively, an overview of how the books started and the phenomenon they became.
The different sections contain a mixture of British Library objects that demonstrate the rich history of folklore and magic that was an inspiration for Rowling in creating her fully realised world and archive material from Rowling and Bloomsbury, with some additional information to show the connection. For example, the Alchemy section has the Ripley Scroll, a long alchemical manuscript on how to make a Philosopher’s Stone; there is also the note that red and white have long played a role in alchemy, which was reflected in the choice of names for Albus (meaning white) and Rubeus (meaning red).
The rare books on display are things of beauty in themselves, some huge in size, but all with beautiful imagery to describe the uses of different plants for medicine (in the Herbology section) or the bestiaries (early books of animals) that detail real and mythical animals (in the Care of Magical Creatures section). There are historical objects on loan from elsewhere that show the reality of Rowling’s books: a bezoar in a gold filigree case (because they were such precious objects) in the Potions section, a witch’s broomstick in the Charms sections, or actual runes carved from bones in the Divination section.
There are ancient charts of the skies and a celestial globe from the 1600s in the Astronomy section (Rowling borrowed plenty of astronomical references for characters: Sirius, Luna, Bellatrix); amulets and charms to ward off evil spells in Defence Against the Dark Arts; and plenty of books that are historical recordings of the sciences that provide inspiration for the Hogwarts classes, such as Culpeper’s English Physician and Complete Herbal. There are many items in the exhibition, packed into a relatively small space (I’ve been to exhibitions in the British Library that have felt more expansive), which was packed with
Muggles children, but I’m sure the British Library could have found more.
There were items from outside the British Library collection, particularly paintings that reflected the longstanding fascination for magic, such as The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus by Joseph Wright and The Magic Circle by JW Waterhouse, but my favourite was the tombstone for Nicolas Flamel from the 1400s. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the Invisibility Cloak on loan from a private owner …
The best parts for me were the behind-the-scenes materials. The illustrations by Jim Kay were gorgeous, particularly the depictions of Fluffy, gnomes, mandrakes, Diagon Alley and the phoenix on the poster (as seen in the image at the top of this post). If you’re a big fan of Harry Potter, and have read the background material on Pottermore, you will love as I did the Rowling archive materials. An annotated sketch of Hogwarts and grounds, a handwritten list of subjects, a synopsis of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, annotated manuscripts of the books which show the polishing and changing of a story that was years in the making before it was published, original handwritten manuscript pages of early drafts, and even the original planning pages for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix so that Rowling could keep everything on track for that massive brick of a book.
More amazing still were the original illustrations by Rowling, done years before the books were published – she is an amazing artist. Is there nothing she can’t do well? They are great pens drawings that capture the essence of the characters and the setting, such as Hagrid, Albus and Minerva with the infant Harry, or the Gryffindor gang (where Dean was originally called Gary). Some were shown on Pottermore before but seeing them up close was great – it’s easy to see how vivid these characters and stories were in her mind that she could describe them so brilliantly. Along with the exhibition, it shows how much Rowling used and put into her world and why it is so fully realised and why the Harry Potter books connected to so many people: because even though it’s magic, it feels completely real.
I am greedy, but I would have preferred more in this exhibition, especially for the price. It’s interesting to combine the two aspects – historical artefacts and archive material – but then the exhibition is neither one thing nor the other, and I was left wanting more. It’s a fascinating exhibition and I hope it’s a great success for the British Library, and it’s another wonderful delight for a Harry Potter fan, but it’s not quite as magical as it should be.