A History of Magic | Harry Potter at the British Library!

A few weeks ago I attended an event at the British Library called Late at the Library: A History of Magic, a mixture of special talks and shows, and – most importantly – after-hours access to the Library’s new exhibition on occult history, through the medium of Harry Potter. The exhibition itself is something I’ve been looking forward to for about a year now, ever since I first heard that it might be happening, but going on this particular evening was definitely a stroke of genius on the part of my mother, who suggested it (and some good ticket-buying timing for my part). Sadly, she wasn’t able to come with me and be educated on all things Harry Potter, but my friend Grace and I had a great time anyway. 😊

Of all the events that were going on (aside from the exhibition itself), we spent the most time at the amulet-crafting workshop, where I made a little clay bead with a rune for healing on one side, and (at Grace’s suggestion) the kanji for foot on the other (as I’ve been having foot problems for a while now). At the other end of the table, a few people were also writing spells, but not being sure what kind of spells to make, we gave this a miss… I had also hoped to listen to a couple of speakers (Gary Lachman on Magic and Music, and a storytelling session with TUUP), but when the time came, Grace & I both agreed that we’d rather see more of the exhibition… Speaking of which, the programme advised setting aside an hour to make sure we saw everything in the exhibition, but it actually took a lot longer to get through it all; there’s a lot to see, and the crowds (which I imagine will be pretty constant for as long as the exhibition is open) made it very slow going.

Sadly photography wasn’t allowed inside the exhibition, but they had themed ceiling decorations like these (which I took in the queue outside) in every room.

Some highlights of the exhibition:

  • The hall was beautifully decorated, and each section’s decorations matched the theme of the exhibits that were on display. There was a Charms room, a Defence Against the Dark Arts room, a Care of Magical Creatures room, and so on. I particularly enjoyed the way that the Divination room was set up with teacups hanging from the ceiling.
  • Some of the rooms had interactive exhibits, too. There was a fun game in the Potions room which let you try your hand at mixing ingredients (digitally) to make potions, and in the Astronomy room there was a program that let you examine the stars and constellations that some of the Harry Potter characters were named for. I also spotted what looked like a digital tarot reader, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to have a closer look…
  • J.K. Rowling herself contributed a lot of her original drafts and concept art to the exhibition, and it was scattered all over. With the drafts especially, it was fascinating to see all the notes and corrections she made to the books as she wrote them.
  • Also on display were a lot of the paintings and drawings that Jim Kay has done for the new illustrated editions. A lot of these I had seen before, but some were new to me (I still haven’t read the illustrated Prisoner of Azkaban), and those that I was already familiar with were somehow even more impressive in their original state. Many of the character portraits he were actually painted on wood panels, which is something that seems obvious now when I look back at the texture of the prints they used for the books, but it took me by surprise when I first saw them. I guess I’m just so used to everything being painted on canvas…
  • An amusing conversation I overheard between two friends (paraphrased, of course):
    GIRL (disbelieving): You haven’t read Harry Potter?!
    HER FRIEND: Shh! If anyone hears you, I might get stoned!
  • To be honest, though, the whole thing was one long highlight in itself…

The exhibition will be open until Wednesday 28th February, and although tickets are sold out for December, it seems that there are plenty left in January and February. You can find all the details, and booking links at the British Library’s exhibition page. If you’d like to see everything on offer, then I’d definitely advise setting aside 2-3 hours to spend there (plan in advance for crowds), and perhaps more if you want to browse the gift shop as well!

Swag from the gift shop! Some of the things there were a little pricey, but I couldn’t resist picking up this wonderfully snuggly jumper (with a beautiful phoenix illustration on the front), and a toy Hedwig that looks adorably disapproving (probably at the amount of money I spent 😋). The catalogue I actually picked up at Waterstones a couple of days later, just to save myself the trouble of lugging it all the way home (it’s pretty heavy), but it’s something that I was planning on getting right from the start, so I have no regrets. 😁

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