To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone the British Library have brought together objects to celebrate not only the books but objects that help to tell the story of magic, mythology and folklore that inspired them.
PACCAR Gallery, British Library, London.
20th October 2017 until 28th February 2018
Timed tickets only, extended opening times. Free for members, £16 adults, £5-£11 concessions. Reduced price Family Ticket available. Booking through the website or box office.
If you don't have at least a passing interest in Harry Potter this new exhibition by the British Library is unlikely to thrill, however for those of us who enjoy the books the exhibition does a good job of engaging and offers enough content that isn't Potter specific.
Timed to coincide with the the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first of the seven Harry Potter novels, of which the first print run was a mere 500 copies, the exhibition brings together original manuscripts, concept art, JK Rowling's own drawings alongside a host of associated texts and objects. The aim being to show the historical background to the wizarding world created by Rowling.
Objects reflect various beliefs and folklore from across the globe, including the truly huge 16th century Ripley scroll which documents the creation of the philosophers stone, the Battersea couldron circa 800-600BC on loan from the British Museum, a bezoar and gold filigree case from the Science Museum and many items from the Witchcraft Museum including a 'mermaid'. The item that caused most comment however from visitors was the invisibility cloak, and yes it really was invisible. All that could be 'seen' was the cabinet and the hook that held it aloft for display. A simple, neat idea which kept a sense of fun.
Exploration of the exhibition objects by the British Library
JK Rowling's original synopsis and manuscripts are displayed alongside the first review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by the 8 year old daughter of the the publisher. This delightful and very innocent review written on a small scrap of paper in pencil played its part in changing the fortunes of a writer and shaking up children's publishing to an unprecedented level. The parallels between it and the review as a child of The Hobbit by Rayner Unwin for his father, the publisher of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are clear.
The most interesting manuscripts from a literary point of view being those that were radically different to the published text. Here it is assumed that the visitor is familiar with the published text as the differences to the published story are not clearly highlighted.
Original art work by Jim Kay is enchanting and greatly enhances the exhibition. The sketches are of particular note and work to give a link and feeling of progression and development between the manuscript and the final illustrations. The sketch of Diagon Alley was a particular favourite.
No items from the film franchise are included in this exhibition, the Harry Potter references are limited to the books alone. This is wise, the films are a distinctly different entity and experiences surrounding their production is more than catered for. The success of the Harry Potter series as a children's books is unparalleled in it's own right and it's right that the books get to shine.
Printed exhibition guides are available, free on arrival. This gives a very superficial overview of of the exhibition, introducing the gallery spaces rather than providing information relating to exhibits and provides a map of the gallery space.
Interpretation primarily takes the form of object labels with the addition a small amount of video. Section labels are absent but are dealt with in the exhibition guide.
Object labels are brief, there's nothing worse than a wordy label, however what is slightly lacking is the link between the historic and how this evolves into what is seen in the Harry Potter books. Rowling rarely lifts a creature or a idea completely from mythology or folklore so explanation of the evolution and inspiration from one to another could have been more clearly defined. Rowling in the introduction states that 90-95% of her wizarding world comes from her own imagination, this leaves very little that doesn't require some sort of explanation of how the objects link into the world of Harry Potter. On the whole the interpretation is good, the whole experience is fun and informative however I, and others were left wondering how some of the objects related to Harry Potter.
During my midweek afternoon visit queues were minimal, staff friendly and the exhibition well signposted. Unlike the BL toilet signage which every time I find infuriating. Timed tickets aid queue management plus the two members of staff assigned to manage the tiny queue meant that the whole arrivals process was professional. A free printed exhibition guide is given to each visitor on arrival with the opportunity to recycle on exit.
Graphic Design by Easy Tiger Creative is very good, none of the ideas were new but they did a very good job of creating atmosphere without crossing the fine line into being a theme park. Good use has been made of the vertical space, particularly on entrance. Over the queuing barriers floating keys from the Philopsher's Stone and on entrance suspended flying books greet visitors as they descend the stairs. These devices are used repeatedly throughout, for example tea cups, broom sticks and starry skies but they work well and don't feel over used.
The exhibition space is divided into Hogwarts subjects, this works well both from a curatorial perspective and also to create an enhanced visitor experience. Each area is presented differently to reflect that subject as portrayed in the novels, the strongest of these being Divination where the atmosphere of Professor Trelawney's classroom complete with red drapes over the lamps most effectively comes to life. It is also where a couple of very welcome chairs are located. As with most exhibitions seating is limited and as soon as a chair became vacant there was a swifty new occupant.
Interactive elements are of course used, it would have been very surprising if this had not been the case given the subject matter and audience. They are fun and certainly add to the experience for the younger visitor, for an adult audience there is limited appeal which certainly doesn't need to be the case. Digital mixing of potions, a crystal ball and audio played through flowerpot speakers in Herbology are all part of the interactive suite. The flowerpots are less successful in achieving their goals. The flower pot is held to the listeners ear and audio played through them, however as there are only two available this limits participation to two visitors at once. On the relatively quiet day I visited it meant that most visitors missed out on interacting with this element.*Tour of the Harry Potter: A History of Magic by TimeOut*
The midweek afternoon was not overly busy, helped by timed tickets, however there were queues for display cases. Layout of the exhibition was utilising the existing structure and so many of the cases line the walls and hold multiple items, this naturally leads to a line of people moving along the display case to view each item in turn. If the dwell time at each item is relatively short this can work well and aid visitor flow by giving a structure. However in this case many of the items are text, bottle necks were more frequent around the original Harry Potter manuscripts as visitors were reading the whole of the text which was not reproduced any where else. Because of the design of the cases the team were having to work with this did mean that items with a longer dwell time did cause issues on the visitor flow. This may have been aided if these items had been placed in a freestanding cabinet allowing easier circulation.
Display cabinets had been simply and cleverly transformed by the simply addition of facades to give the impression of mullioned windows. These were not used throughout but on first impressions, this is wise use of resources as this set the atmosphere on arrival and added to the 'wow' factor without the expense of continuing throughout the whole space.
Retail opportunities were first introduced on arrival, display cabinets at the queue barriers introducing product early. As expected exit from the exhibition is past the shop, however the main retail offering is not immediately on exit of the exhibition. The shop offers the expected range of Harry Potter merchandise, stuffed Hippogriffs, Hogwarts scarves, satchels and character wands along with pencils and terrariums. Two specially produced exhibition books accompany the exhibition, one of which is specifically aimed at families.
Books also make up a selection of the product range, but they are in the minority and focus on the illustrated versions of the novels. There are a few, a very few books not relating to Harry Potter but magic, the history of magic and folklore. It's very clear where the secondary spend is expected to come from. The BL shop is also open adjacent to the entrance to the gallery.
Curators: British Library
Project Management: British Library
Graphic Design: Easy Tiger Creative
Partners: Bloomsbury, JK Rowling's Wizarding World, Google Arts and Culture