The world is full of children—and, let’s face it, adults—who have glanced longingly at the sky, hoping to spot an owl winging its way to them, Hogwarts acceptance letter in its beak. An immersive new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society is built for them—and anyone else who’s ever enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.
“Harry Potter: A History of Magic” coincides with the release of a new book of the same name and combines artifacts from the British Library and the New-York Historical Society with pieces from Rowling’s archives and her publisher, Scholastic, an audio tour voiced by Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer, and a lot more. We visited the exhibit to bring you our impressions. (Hint: The whole thing is magical!)
Welcome to Hogwarts
This exhibit isn’t shy. From the moment you step into the lobby of the New-York Historical Society and see the massive castle entrance looming you know it’s going to be something special. (Because it’s so popular, you’ll need tickets in advance.)
Past the castle gates lies a series of rooms, rich in atmosphere and packed with things to see and do. Most of the spaces, which you visit in a specific order, evoke the magical subject they’re themed around. From Herbology, lit in green and hung with potted plants and a greenhouse-like ceiling, you’ll move on to study Charms, with floating witches’ hats, flying brooms, a snitch zipping about the walls, and the whispered words of students practicing their incantations. And so it goes through Astronomy, Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and more.
Fictional magic stuff is cute and all, but an exhibit like this wouldn’t belong in a museum without genuine history to it—and it’s got plenty of that. Dozens and dozens of artifacts detail the history of real-life “magic,” much of which helped inspire Rowling’s universe of spells, characters, and fantastic beasts.
You’ll see an actual witch’s leaky cauldron, a 12th-century drawing of the constellation Sirius as a big black dog, a 500-year-old book warning readers about werewolves, and even a Fiji mermaid. Everyone will have their own favorites, of course, but we give a tip of our pointed hat to the tombstone of a notable name from the Harry Potter books: Nicolas Flamel, an actual man who died in 1418. After his death, a legend arose that he was secretly an alchemist who had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and the secrets of immortality. Who knew Rowling’s Nicolas Flamel was based on a real person?
As First Years of all ages roam the halls of their new school, they encounter fun little interactive exhibits. In Potions, a screen in front of you opens up a recipe book to a random potion and challenges you to mix ingredients in the proper order in a display at your fingertips. Don’t even try whipping up a Beauty Potion without the right combo of lemon juice and horse dung!
You can also listen in on Herbology class, practice your Divination skills with a video Tarot table, and peer into the future by clearing the fog from a crystal ball.
Bringing Up Harry
Of course, some of the best parts of “A History of Magic” are the odds and ends from Rowling’s time creating the Wizarding World. One early draft shows Hagrid acting as a wizardly envoy to Cornelius Fudge, a Muggle politican. A 1997 letter from Rowling’s publisher suggests changing the title of the first book to Harry Potter and the School of Magic for its American release. (“I think it has a nice ring to it.”)
Cutest of all: 8-year-old Alice Bloomsbury’s hand-scribbled note reviewing an early chapter of the first book—a note that famously helped persuade her publisher father to take a chance on the Boy Who Lived. Alice writes, “The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside.”