It has been twenty years since Harry Potter enchanted a global audience and I have been waiting three months now to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic, a British Library exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. The exhibit focuses on “the traditions of folklore and magic at the heart of the Harry Potter stories, Harry Potter: A History of Magic unveils century-old treasures including rare books, manuscripts, and magical objects from the collections of the British Library and New-York Historical Society—with original material from Harry Potter publisher Scholastic and J.K. Rowling’s own archives.”
The exhibit showcases the of art, artifacts, and documents of traditions of folklore and mythology across the globe that influenced J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. 95% of the magic in the books was invented by Rowling herself, but the remaining 5% was taken from folklore and mythology to embellish the stories and draw the reader in.
Enter Room One – Alchemy, the forerunner of Chemistry. A alchemist would need to have gold and solver, “stinking water,” mercury and white smoke among other ingredients, to make elixirs. On display was the 17th Century’s Ripley Scroll. The symbols, words, and colors on this scroll gave clues to readers in medieval times on how to create a Philosopher’s Stone – something many believed could make you live forever!
Go Into Room Two – Herbology. Who was Potions master during Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts? It wasn’t Professor Snape! It was Neville Longbottom.
J. K. Rowling drew inspiration for naming herbs and potions from historical herbals, which are books about plants that often reference their medicinal properties. In this gallery real and fictional plants are displayed to cure all kinds of ailments.
Enter Room Three – Charms. A combination spell and hand movement add magical property to an object or creature like causing an item to float in midair: Winggardium Levisoa!. Charms add properties to an object rather than transforming it completely. In Harry Potter, charms also provide magical shortcuts, like summoning things from across the room (Accio!) or turning one’s want into a light source (Lumos!)
Also on display in this room was the Cloak of Invisibility.
In Japanese folklore the story of Tengu no Kakuremino describes a similar raincoat of invisibility.
Room Four – Astronomy. Luna Lovegood shares a name with the Roman Goddess of the Moon and Sirius Black with the brightest star in the night.
J.K. Rowling actually has a notebook for unusual names:
“I collect unusually names. I have notebooks full of them. Some of the names I made like like Quidditch and Malfoy. Other names mean something – Dumbledore, which means ‘Bumblebee” in Old English – so far I have got names from saints, place names, war memorials, and gravestones.”
Enter Room Five – Divination. This is the art of predicting the future. People have used a variety of objects and methods to see what the future holds, from palm reading to gazing into a crystal ball. In this room you will find a witch’s mirror, oracle bone, and fortune-telling cup. Divination is the “most difficult of all magical arts . . . books can only take you so far in this field.” — Professor Trelawney
Come into Room Six – Defense Against the Dark Arts is a core subject at Hogwarts. In this class students learn how to magically defend themselves against Dark Creatures, the Dark Arts, and other dark charms. The ultimate evil is “Unforgivable Curses” with the worst used to kill. No Hogwarts teacher of Defense Against the Dart Arts has stayed in the position for a year.
Go Into Room Seven – The Care of Magical Creatures
Owls, Unicorns, Phoenixes, Dragons, Unicorns and more.
A Magizoologist is a person who studies magical creatures – a field known as magizoology. A person may not need to have graduated from school to become a Magizoologist like Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts.
Outside of the exhibit there is a wall featuring the different book illustrators Jim Kay, Mary GrandPré, Kazu Kibuishi, and Brian Selznick, as well as interviews with them.
Mary GrandPré is famous for illustrating the American editions of J.K. Rowling’s book. She designed the covers for all seven of the main books in the series, made the chapter illustrations, and invented the famous lightning bolt-styled logo that’s still used today. Her images were the first images people had for what Harry Potter looked like, years before Daniel Radcliffe was on the scene.
J.K. Rowling has said Deathly Hallows is one of her favorite book covers. Throughout the exhibit are Rowlings notes and illustrations. To see her writer’s notebook and her schedule for writing are enlightening.
“You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process. And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.” – J.K. Rowling