Editorial Feature

How Do You Curate An Exhibition About Magic?

Julian Harrison tells us what went into creating Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The spellbinding exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library, reignited our curiosity for the magical world. Put on to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling, the exhibition also took us back to a time where magic and myth began.

The exhibition was split into rooms that reflected the subjects taught at Hogwarts, like Potions, Divination and Defence Against the Dark Arts, which echo the stories the British Library have shared on our platform through a series of fascinating online exhibits.

In the physical exhibition – alongside original, never-before-seen drafts and drawings from J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay – visitors saw rare books, manuscripts and magical objects from the British Library’s collection, illustrating the traditions of folklore and magic. From the 16th-century Ripley Scroll that explains how to create a Philosopher’s Stone to the chance to study the night sky on a large celestial globe using Augmented Reality, a world steeped in magic was revealed.

To get more of an insight into what it takes to curate a show about something so varied and mysterious as magic, we spoke to Lead Curator for the exhibition, Julian Harrison. Here he tells us about the mammoth task and the challenges they faced along the way.

'You will have a lot of trouble’, in How to Read the Future with Tea Leaves, translated from the Chinese by Mandra 2nd edn, 1925 (From the collection of The British Library)
Sloane Scroll (From the collection of The British Library)
Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition view, The British Library

Aside from celebrating the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter, why do you think this exhibition needs to exist?

People have always been interested in the history of magic and in the world around them. That's what we've discovered from putting the exhibition together and the public response to it has confirmed that. There’s a global fascination in things that are unexplained.

Any exhibition has to find a central focus, which really inspires and engages people. In this case the whole phenomenon of the history, traditions and mythology attached to magic is really fascinating.

What makes the British Library the perfect setting for this show?

We're one of the greatest libraries in the world and we have something in the range of 200 million collection items. We've got an incredible range of material, not just from the British Isles, but internationally, which really lends itself to this kind of exhibition.

We were particularly excited that we were able to look at our Asian and African collections for the show to find Ethiopian magical handbooks, Chinese oracle bones and all kind of other things relevant to the subject.

How do you curate an exhibition about magic? Where did you start?

We've had about a year to put this exhibition together. That’s meant we’ve had to work very quickly to choose the exhibits as we were also producing the design of the exhibition and creating the book for the show at the same time.

We were very lucky we decided at an early stage that we would focus on the different subjects of the Hogwarts curriculum. Take Astronomy for example, it involved thinking about the different types of material we had and suggesting potential items. One of those was an amazing celestial globe, another was Leonardo Da Vinci's notebook. You then need to find corresponding items which tell you a story about the history of astronomy. By finding items like the oldest atlas of the night sky in our Chinese collection, you can start to create a narrative around them.

A phoenix, in Guy de la Garde, L’Histoire et description du Phoenix, 1550 (From the collection of The British Library)
An exploded cauldron, 20th century (From the collection of The British Library)
Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition view, The British Library

Do you have a typical process you follow when curating?

It depends on the project. My philosophy when it comes to making an exhibition is that I'm really committed to choosing items which are engaging but also educational as well. This is really important for anyone coming to see the exhibition in person or if they're looking online. It's important there's a connection between all of the items.

What is the relationship created between the Harry Potter-based exhibits and the real archive materials?

It's been an interesting exercise in taking some of J.K. Rowling's own drawings and drafts from the books and then integrating them into the overall story of the exhibition. When we were choosing the British Library exhibits, we were very mindful to find things that had a relationship to the stories. For example, the story of how you cultivate a mandrake is featured in the Herbology section of the exhibition. What we've tried to do is put the historical examples of her ideas, side by side with how they feature in the books.

What else can you tell us about the atmosphere that's been created in the space?

We worked very closely with the designers Easy Tiger, and each section has a slightly different look and feel. The design of this exhibition combines the different subjects as you walk through and there's little touches every in each room.

In the Potions section the lighting is designed to look like cauldrons, when you go into Astronomy, it's a circular room with the night sky shining down and telescopes hanging from the ceiling, and in the Magical Creatures section there's a wall of creatures constantly streaming past you.

Sketch of Hogwarts by J.K. Rowling (From the collection of The British Library)
John Evelyn, Hortus Hyemalis or collection of plant specimens, 1645 (From the collection of The British Library)
Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition view, The British Library

What have been the challenges of this project?

Making sure we appeal to all the different type of people coming to the exhibition. There's been a far greater family audience coming than usual, and that's something we're proud of.

Also we occasionally had to move things around because they didn't respond to each other. We had some interesting challenges like the Ripley's Scroll which is 6 metres long – where's an appropriate place to put that without impeding on the flow of visitors? And working around that celestial globe to make sure it can be seen in its full glory.

Was there anything that didn't work and didn't make it into the show?

When deciding which subjects to cover in the exhibition we did play with featuring History of Magic, but the way it's described in the books it's to do with the history of goblin rebellions and things like that.

We inevitably ended up with more than we could show and that's one of the challenges. Our decisions were based on an intensive process of putting medieval manuscripts side by side and working out which one you can create the best story around.

Tea-Cup Reading and the Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea-Leaves, by a Highland Seer, 1920 (From the collection of The British Library)
A crystal ball and stand, 19th-20th century (From the collection of The British Library)
Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition view, The British Library

What pressure did you feel to get something as iconic as this right?

The pressure came from the passion of the fans. I was very keen to be true to the stories and create something that everybody would appreciate – not just Harry Potter fans but anybody coming to the exhibition.

The public reaction has been incredible. We’ve managed to make a lot of people very happy, which we never could've predicted. It's testament to the fact we invested so much time and energy.

What's been the best reaction you've had to the show?

At the end of the exhibition there's a wall where we let people leave comments about the exhibition, so seeing that is always exciting as a curator to read. Those comments come from children, adults, so many international visitors, some leave drawings, others tell you what their favourite items are. So many people come to tell me that they've found a completely new object that really fascinated them, which means we've done our job.

Captain Elin's witchcraft, 1700 - 1800 (From the collection of The British Library)
Love charm, 20th century (From the collection of The British Library)
Unicorns, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux, 1694 (From the collection of The British Library)

Any insights about magic you're taking away from the project?

It's a big reminder that previous generations were very closely connected with the natural world in ways we aren't today. People used to source natural ingredients and know precisely what each one did in combination, to either provide protection or cure an illness. We've moved away from that now, and if we want to cure something we just go to the doctors or pharmacy.

What have you learnt in terms of curation from working on an exhibition like this?

This is the third major exhibition I've done now. I did one about the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and now Harry Potter. Each one has been a learning experience but this one has been an eye opening experience, because of the subject matter and the way we've been very creative around the subject. The response from the public has been really important and will inspire us to be collectively bolder in the decisions we can make in the future.

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