British Library curators pick their favourite rooms in Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Aerial shot of the British Library
British Library, image credit Tony Antoniou.

We chat to the team behind the intriguing new exhibition at the British Library, which opens on Friday 20 October.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic brings together wizarding world treats from J.K. Rowling’s personal archives, contributions from Bloomsbury and other carefully chosen items from the Library’s collection of roughly 200 million artefacts. Yes, you read that correctly: 200 million. No wonder the building is so big.

The exhibition also includes items on loan from institutions like the British Museum, the Science Museum and more unusual places such as the quirky Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, reveals Alex Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. ‘We’ve got broomsticks and cauldrons that were actually used in real-life magic,’ he says. ‘It’s been very exciting finding them.’

In addition to Alex, the other exhibition curators are Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and Harry Potter: A History of Magic), Joanna Norledge (Lead Curator: Contemporary, Literary and Creative Archives) and Tanya Kirk (Lead Curator: Rare Books 1601 to 1900). All were thrilled to be involved with the Harry Potter project.

‘My sister is dyslexic and she read the first one when it came out,’ says Joanna, for example. ‘She credits it as the book that got her reading properly. Every single person in my family read them as well – the new one would come out and I’d get to read it first as I’m the fastest, and then it would go around everybody else.’

‘I’m a massive Harry Potter fan,’ Tanya reveals. ‘I read Philosopher’s Stone the year it came out, when I was 14, and did all the queuing at midnight and hanging around in Leicester Square to watch people going into premieres of the films!’

Tanya explains that curating the exhibition was a challenge, but once they hit upon the central idea it became much more straightforward. ‘I was trying to think of how we could structure it and how we could make the connections between the world of Harry Potter and our own collections – because we do have really amazing collections about magical history. And so we decided we would structure it around the subjects taught at Hogwarts, and after that we were able to make these connections.

Tanya continues, in most other cases ‘the hard bit was to find just a couple of examples of certain things – we had hundreds of amazing illustrations of unicorns, or loads of amazing alchemical manuscripts, and we just had to pick one or two of each.’

Julian agrees that this was rather tricky. ‘We had to choose about 150 items in this entire exhibition – and that includes all the loans from J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay and so forth. So effectively we’ve only got about a hundred British Library items out of 200 million. So that’s been a really interesting exercise.’

With all the rooms in the exhibition reflecting a Hogwarts subject, which ones ended up being the curators’ favourites? ‘I got really interested in the Divination section,’ says Tanya. ‘I found this little book from the late eighteenth century which is supposedly a collection of old Egyptian fortune-telling techniques. It’s got a section on dreams in it, and weirdly one of the dreams it gives is that if you dream that you’re killing serpents, it means that you’ll defeat your enemies. I thought that was really apt.’

‘I suppose one of the bits that I enjoyed the most was finding connections in astronomy,’ Joanna reveals of the Astronomy room. ‘A lot of the names, particularly of the Black family, were taken from the stars and constellations. The constellations are so fascinating anyway – there are all these stories and myths mixed up in them – and so to use those names and bring them to a new world, I thought, was really nice.’

Final design of the Astronomy room from the British Library exhibition, 'History of Magic'
The final design for the Astronomy room, Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

Julian has trouble picking his preferred room: ‘I think it’s like choosing your favourite child, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘The Astronomy room is full of some really, really incredible artefacts… Herbology as well. We can’t reveal it, but the final room of the exhibition is one I’m excited about, as there are some fun items in there. The fans will love that...’ Ooh, mysterious.

‘I’m excited about so many of them, it’s hard to choose!’ says Joanna. ‘I’m excited about Defence Against the Dark Arts, I’m excited about Charms… the first room is going to be Potions and Alchemy, and I think it’s going to be really striking; there are things that will really stand out when you first come in.’

Alex agrees with her on Potions and Alchemy. ‘All the items in there are my favourite. There’s a great one of witches using a cauldron, and then we’ve got a nice painting by Joseph Wright of Derby of a man who accidentally created phosphorus by boiling urine.’

Er, wait… urine?

‘There is a reason for it,’ Alex promises. We’ll take his word for it.

So those are their favourite classrooms in the exhibition – what about the ones in the books? Julian is adamant it’s History of Magic: ‘Just because I love the way that Professor Binns drones on and on and on about the history of the Goblin Rebellions. That takes me back to my schooldays, so that’s quite cool.’

Joanna chooses Charms: ‘That would be the most fun class!’

‘For me it would be Care of Magical Creatures,’ says Alex, ‘because I really like Hagrid. Learning from Hagrid would be amazing and I think learning all those animals would be really good fun.’

And finally, Tanya knows where her loyalties lie. ‘I’m going to go for Herbology,’ she reveals, ‘partly because I’m a Hufflepuff and I think I should support Professor Sprout; but because I do genuinely like gardening and I think it would be fun.’

You can see the curators’ work on display in Harry Potter: A History of Magic from 20 October at the British Library. To book tickets, go here.

Available to pre-order now, Pottermore is also publishing two official eBooks alongside the exhibition: Harry Potter - A History of Magic and Harry Potter - A Journey Through the History of Magic. An enhanced edition of Harry Potter - A History of Magic is available from Apple.

For US readers, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic will publish this year, and further publishing is planned alongside the US exhibition in 2018.