What is the purpose of Harry Potter: The Exhibition?

A week and a half ago, I visited Harry Potter: The Exhibition at Discovery Times Square in New York. If I had not been on holiday in New York this summer and steeped in the Harry Potter films through my podcast series, I would probably not have bothered with the exhibit. Having seen it, however, it left me intrigued and puzzled.

The press release for the opening of the exhibition in April 2009 in Chicago boasted “more than 200 authentic props and costumes from the films” and had Eddie Newquist, president of the company responsible for the show’s concept, excited about it being “enchanting, engaging and, above all, true to the spirit of the films”. What does that mean?

The most interesting part of the exhibition for Potter buffs is indeed that it showcases original props and costumes. Which means that you can finally see clothes worn by Dan Radcliffe, Alan Rickman and others “for real”. You can see, for example, how small the three young wizards once were – something which at least for me is always hard to imagine when your only reference is a big screen image.

The exhibit is also made up like a theme park ride, full of replicas of scenery and characters from the series. These make for “magic” atmosphere, of course, but they also hammer home what seems to be the point of the whole exhibit: that Harry’s World isn’t something that was created by a team of talented filmmakers, but something that is almost so real you can experience it yourself. The following examples illustrate this concept:

1. Every costume will bear a caption reading something like “Robes worn by Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'”. Note how the caption emphasizes the fictional character over the actor, ignoring the fact that Harry Potter never actually wore the robes. Daniel Radcliffe wore them while he was playing Harry Potter.

2. The Hagrid costume on display is not human-sized, it’s Hagrid-sized. The belonging plaque will still read “Clothes worn by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane)”, eliminating the notion that Coltrane is actually not as big as Hagrid and probably wore smaller clothes when he portrayed the character, while the clothes on display might have been worn by a size double, if they are actually authentic props at all (there is no way to tell).

3. In a part of the exhibition that deals with the villains of the films, a statue of the house elf Kreacher sits between the costume busts. It’s a lifelike recreation of what the elf would look like if he ever actually existed outside of a computer and it also has a little plaque reading “Kreacher as seen in …”. This is, of course, completely meaningless, because this painted styrofoam Kreacher is just as unreal as the virtual elf on the screen. An interesting alternative would have been to display the maquette that Industrial Light and Magic used to create the character, but that would probably destroy the “magic”.

For me, this conception of the exhibit renders it quite useless no matter what you are interested in. If you really want to look behind the screens of the film series, you will be disappointed, because the show offers nothing at all about the making of the films, except the props (unlike, for example the Museum of the Moving Image which I visited a day later and which absolutely knocked my socks off because it is designed so well). If you want to study the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the production design of the movies, the shenanigans around the actual displays will drive you mad and give you a hard time actually looking at things up close. And if you are interested in the complete immersive Harry Potter experience, you will be disappointed as well, because the props and costume displays clearly disrupt the storytelling experience of the exhibit, as they come from a world outside the show (which differentiates the exhibition from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park).

Moneymaking aside, what is the purpose of exhibitions like this? According to David Monsena, president of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Harry Potter exhibit “embodies the Museum’s mission of inspiring the inventive genius in everyone”. How any part of Harry Potter: The Exhibition could inspire you to more than buying stuff in the gift shop, however, remains a mystery to me.

(Edward Rothstein of the “New York Times” thinks many of the same thoughts but arrives at a more positive conclusion.)