Harry Potter: A History of Magic

What could be better than a day spent in Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Two days spent there.

This exhibition was a visual feast for us as longtime fans of The Boy Who Lived. Fans were first introduced to A History of Magic at the British Library, but it has since moved on to New York City, just a block away from Central Park. Most of the artifacts and artwork remain the same, with additional items exclusive to the New York Historical Society’s exhibition. We were among the very first to explore the show on its opening day and returned to Manhattan in late November to share it with friends.

This padlocked chest once contained the first signed American copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before its release, as part of a 2005 library sweepstakes arranged by Scholastic. Impossible to miss, this giant steamer trunk occupies the lobby space, implying that fans are about to take a journey through the history of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Floating books sway up above, suspended from the museum ceiling.

Entering the exhibit through a great castle door, guests pass under the gaze of two enormous bronze owls. These birds are native New Yorkers, relics from a flock of 22 that decorated the roof of a newspaper building constructed in 1895. James Gordon Bennett Jr., larger-than-life personality and publisher of the New York Herald, commissioned these owls (with his own finances). The statues’ eyes would light up as the clocks chimed on the hour. Spooky as that may sound, Editor & Publisher described the early fascination when they wrote, “thousands of persons cluttered up the neighborhood and gazed at the two figures.” Though the 250lb birds at the entrance do not have glowing eyes, people are still staring up at them in awe 125 years later.

Though not a moving portrait like the hundreds that cover the walls of Hogwarts, Jim Kay’s portrait of Professor Albus Dumbledore greets guests with a signature twinkle in his eye. On his desk, there are magical items suggesting his achievements as the “greatest wizard of modern times” and mundane items like his knitting and Lemon Drops. His complexity shines through. It isn’t until I’m face to face with a painting that I feel I can fully understand and experience it, and this proved to be the singular part of the collection that moved me the most.

We lingered over, “The Sorting Hat”, a previously unreleased illustration by Mary GrandPré. The hat appears friendly and the ceiling, “bewitched to look like the sky outside” is beautiful. In the five years Rowling spent mapping out her fictional world, she decided Hogwarts students would be sorted into four houses. The question of how they were to be sorted came next, resulting in a list of possibilities. This draft included a hat, a riddle, a ghost court, a selection committee, an arbitrary list, and statues. Her idea for the latter would have statues of the four founders “come alive” and select students. She was finally able to use this idea for the sorting ceremony at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in her “Magic In North America” writings on Pottermore. The following year, Rowling even said, “I often cut ideas and put them into later books. Never waste a good scene!”

The space is organized around the courses taught to Hogwarts students, as well as the past, present, and future of Harry Potter. Each room is a subject: there is a real bezoar in Potions, a fat copy of Culpeper's herbal in Herbology, and a colorful broom in Flying. Above, Savanah and our friend Michael admire the broomstick in question, which once belonged to a twentieth-century witch. Right behind us is arguably the most valuable piece in the collection, safely protected inside a towering glass case: an invisibility cloak!

One of the star items in this exhibition, which we hardly believed with our own eyes, is the actual headstone from Nicholas Flamel’s tomb. Normally, it is preserved by and kept in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, but was brought to New York just for this exhibition. The real Nicolas Flamel was probably born around 1330. He spent his life as a bookseller and philanthropist until his death in 1418, at which point his body was laid to rest in Paris. Flamel designed his own tombstone, which made it more meaningful as we studied, our faces mere inches away. It is carved with the images of Christ, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul, a Latin cross, and alchemical imagery of a key, a sun, and a moon. After his death, rumors claim he succeeded at the two main goals of alchemy: that he achieved immortality through the Elixir of Life and made the Philosopher’s Stone.

With the original British Library exhibition coming across the pond, the curators introduced a distinctly New York element to it for its American debut. Among the displays were sketches of magical creatures like the snallygaster (Hey, fellow Marylander!), an annotated screenplay of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and a 1910 study of the Woolworth Building (AKA the hidden-in-plain-sight location of MACUSA).

There are 24 original artworks between Scholastic illustrators Brian Selznick and Mary GrandPré. Original cover art of the American versions of the Harry Potter series is scattered throughout the entire showcase, including Selznick's full-length cover art that hit shelves last summer, with the release of the 20th anniversary publications in the United States. We have a newfound appreciation for their art now, having had the opportunity to contemplate covers unblemished and uncluttered with titles and text. Costumes from the hit Broadway show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child occupy a hallway quite separate from the rest of the exhibit but can be found easily enough if ample time is set aside to tour the space. On a table rests an incredibly detailed set model, a Lyric Theatre in miniature. Guests can even peek into the sides and see the view from the wings.

Our tips for making the most of your visit:

1. Look in all directions, especially up!

If you don’t, you’re sure to miss out. There are recognizable pieces from the films, witch hats murmuring spells, and flying books above your head. Below your feet are glass floors, containing aged bottles from New York apothecaries.

2. Bring tissues

Whether you get emotional from feelings of nostalgia or you just really REALLY love Snape, a travel size pack of tissues will help you see some of the exhibits in between tears.

3. Don’t skip out on the interactive elements

There is rarely a line and if there is, it’s rather short and informal. They break up the monotony of your typical museum visit and are one of the very few things you can touch in the exhibit, making them perfect for children. There are tarot cards to read, a crystal ball to be examined, and an interactive cauldron where both of us failed our attempts at brewing Amortentia and Felix Felicis.

4. Enjoy the photo ops

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit except for press coverage, due to the rare nature of many pieces on display. However, you may take photos of the castle entrance, with a book cover standee, and of the display cases teeming with editions of Harry Potter from all over the globe. Absolutely no flash photography is permitted.

5. Our final piece of advice: take your time— there is much here to enjoy for Potter fans. The New York Historical Society’s website reads that guests spend an average of 45 minutes, but we spent roughly two hours each visit and went twice. Absorb everything around you, as exhibitions such as these are temporary. The Harry Potter: A History of Magic official companion guidebooks for the British and American exhibitions, respectfully, are longer-lasting in print but are better as supplemental material. Seeing something with your own eyes is a more emotional experience than regarding it in a book. The “History of Magic” exhibition lasts through January 27, 2019, and offers extended hours in its final week. You can book tickets here. Or if you can't make it, live vicariously through us and browse our photo gallery:


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