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Spellbound by Harry Potter and the Museum of Magic

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

At the New-York Historical Society, a glimpse of the folkloric, cultural and scientific influences on the magic of the popular series.

In the new exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” at the New-York Historical Society through Jan. 27, galleries are arranged by the subjects taught at Hogwarts, including astronomy.CreditCreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

A crumpled piece of paper hanging on the far wall had me mesmerized. It was a sketch of a dark-haired boy with round glasses surrounded by his sour-faced relatives. The page is covered in wrinkles and stained with what looks like coffee. But there he is, the Boy Who Lived, drawn lovingly by J.K. Rowling herself, a full six years before the first Harry Potter book was published.

Behind an imposing castle wall, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” an engrossing new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, traces the origins of Harry’s story, not just through the lens of the writing process, but through the many historical, cultural and scientific influences that helped shape and inspire the magic of the books.

John James Audubon's “Snowy Owl, Study for Havell pl. 121,” center, from 1829, hangs at the entrance of the Care of Magical Creatures room.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

But it was these early sketches that first caught my eye: a merry-looking Professor Sprout surrounded by her plants; Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts, with his ring of keys; Harry prowling the halls of Hogwarts with Hermione, Ron, Neville and “Gary,” whom readers now know as Dean Thomas.

I’d always been aware, as most fans are, that Ms. Rowling carried this story with her for years, scribbling notes on napkins and odd bits of paper. But to imagine her painstakingly adding the stripes on Harry’s shirt or the freckles on Ron’s face long before she could’ve guessed that anyone would care — there’s something profoundly moving about that.

Over the years, Potterdom has expanded in all directions. There’s the Broadway play with its dazzling stagecraft. The amusement parks with their towering replicas of Hogwarts. The spinoff movies that will be released for years to come. To some, this exhibition might seem like just another promotional tool for an ever-growing empire. But there’s something about going back to the beginning of the writing process that reignites the original magic and burns through any cynicism.

This is what the exhibition — which originated last autumn at the British Library — does so well. Commemorating 20 years since the original publication in the United States of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” it has something for adults and children, history buffs and science enthusiasts, Potterheads and casual fans. The rooms are arranged by Hogwarts’ school subjects, which means visitors wind their way from Potions to Herbology to Charms and on until they reach Care of Magical Creatures, where the shadows of unicorns and centaurs lope past on the wall.

The stone tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, from 1410, in the Alchemy room. CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

While there are plenty of whimsical touches, this is not a studio tour or a theme park. The wide range of artifacts on display — dating back to A.D. 700 — form a bridge between the real world and the fictional one. In the books, for example, Nicolas Flamel was the legendary maker of the “Sorcerer’s Stone,” an object capable of turning metal into gold and granting immortality with its Elixir of Life. But it wasn’t until I saw his actual tombstone (on loan from the Musée de Cluny — Musée national du Moyen Âge, in Paris) that I realized he was no fiction. As it turns out, he was a medieval landlord and bookseller who may or may not have stumbled across a rare manuscript with clues to the Philosopher’s Stone.

Costumes from the theatrical production “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at the New-York Historical Society.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

Other objects will seem familiar to readers: a bezoar, a stone taken from an animal’s stomach, like the one Harry used after Ron was poisoned; an 18th-century orrery, a model of the solar system, with tiny, movable planets, that seems straight from Sybill Trelawney’s classroom; and a pamphlet from 1680 about the true nature of the mythical basilisk, a fanged serpent Harry faces during his second year at Hogwarts.

But the exhibition also paints a broader picture of the history of magic, drawing from a range of cultures and mythologies. A 13th-century edition of the “Liber Medicinalis has a cure for malaria that includes writing out the word “Abracadabra.” The 16th-century Ripley scroll, nearly six meters long and beautifully illustrated, contains secrets to the Elixir of Life. An Ethiopian recipe book from 1750 is filled with protective charms, talismans and incantations.

The 16th-century Ripley scroll, in the Alchemy room, contains secrets to the Elixir of Life.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

Kids will delight in the exhibition’s more interactive parts, including a potion-making station, where I managed to use the right ingredients to digitally brew a tonic that would protect me from night goblins. A series of electronic tarot cards told me I’m about to succeed in my goals. There’s an invisibility cloak hanging — cleverly — in a glass case, and a cheerful study of the winged keys by Jim Kay, one of several illustrators who has brought Potterdom to life over the years.

For some, the ancient scrolls and manuscripts will be the draw here. Others will love seeing the many historical depictions of creatures like hippogriffs and mermaids or a broomstick from a 20th-century witch named Olga Hunt, who could be spotted leaping around the moors of Devonshire whenever there was a full moon.

A broomstick in the Charms room of the exhibition.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

But as a writer of young-adult fiction, not to mention a longtime member of an adult book club about children’s literature that started because of a shared interest in Harry Potter, the books were the heart of the exhibition. I was enchanted by every scrap that allowed me a closer look into the writing process: letters between Ms. Rowling and her American editor, Arthur Levine; a map of Hogwarts where a giant squid can be spotted in the lake.

The most charming thing of all? A note from Alice Newton, daughter of the only publishing executive to take a chance on the series. In a child’s handwriting, it reads: “The excitement in this book makes me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read.”

Toward the end of my visit, I realized there’s one area of study missing: transfiguration. In the books, this is the rather difficult art of changing one thing into another — a mouse into a snuffbox or a hedgehog into a pincushion. The New-York Historical Society’s associate curator for exhibitions, Cristian Petru Panaite, told me it was a bit challenging to illustrate this using tangible objects. But perhaps the whole experience is a kind of transfiguration. You walk off the busy street, leaving the messy, chaotic world behind, and for a little while, you get to disappear into the magic of Harry Potter. Readers have been performing this trick for the last two decades. Now others will have a chance to try their hand at the very same spell.

Here are my Top 9 ¾ favorite objects in the “Harry Potter" exhibition.

“Study of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters — Hogwarts Express for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” by Jim Kay.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times
The Dunhuang Star Chart, circa A.D. 700, in the Astronomy room of the exhibition.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

Jim Kay created the brilliant colors and swirling atmosphere in this painting of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, the now-famous gateway to the Hogwarts Express where Harry begins his journey into the world of magic. It was made for the cover of the illustrated edition of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (“Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States).

There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing the oldest-known atlas of the night sky. It was created around A.D. 700, but is still surprisingly accurate, displaying more than 1,300 stars.

No magical-themed exhibit is complete without a unicorn horn. But given that they’re hard to find, the long tusk of a narwhal — “the unicorn of the sea” — is a worthy stand-in.

“The excitement in this book makes me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read,” Alice Newton wrote to her father. CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

It’s hard not to wonder what might have been if 8-year-old Alice Newton, daughter of Nigel Newton, the chief executive at Bloomsbury, hadn’t fallen for Harry Potter when her father brought the manuscript home and saved it from oblivion.

In these notes and diagrams, the earth is shown as the center of the universe and the moon is covered in oceans. Lunar “seas” were in fact made up of lava. But it’s still fascinating to see a genius at work

Pages from Leonardo da Vinci’'s notebook, circa 1506-8. The notations, written in Italian, in Leonardo'’s mirror handwriting, reads from right to left. CreditBritish Library Board
Jim Kay's “Study of Mandrakes for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.”CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

At Hogwarts, the roots of the mandrakes are squalling babies whose cries can be fatal. This real one — from the 16th or 17th century — also looks unsettlingly humanlike. But it’s only poisonous if you eat it.

From her charming sketches to her list of alternative methods for sorting students into their Hogwarts houses, these notes offer a glimpse into the imagination of Ms. Rowling.

Unlike his depiction in the Potter books, the real Nicolas Flamel didn’t live to be 665. But he did survive into his 80s, which — in the 15th century — must have seemed close to that. In 1410, he designed his own tombstone, which is carved with images of Christ, St. Peter and St. Paul.

This “merman,” an example of a fish-like creature from Japanese folklore, is from the 19th century. It is made of various fish parts, bound together with wood, metal, cloth and papier-mâché.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

The scroll is one of only 23 copies in existence, based on the teachings of George Ripley, author of the 1471 work “The Compound of Alchymy; or, the Twelve Gates Leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone.” This rare manuscript features instructions for making the Elixir of Life. Nearly six meters in length and symbolically illustrated, it’s a true highlight of the show.

Though not a real merman, this example of a Japanese ningyo — which translates to “human fish” — is striking in its own right. It also happens to be about ¾ carp, which makes it a perfect addition to this list.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Oct. 5 through Jan. 27 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-873-3400, nyhistory.org. Related programming: harrypotter.nyhistory.org.

Jennifer E. Smith is the author of eight novels for young adults, including “Windfall.”

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