A Look into the Pensieve: Reflections on Harry Potter at Twenty Years

Elizabeth Bland, M.A., will speak on June 27, 2017 at 2:00 in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) on A Look into the Pensieve: Reflections on Harry Potter at Twenty Years. As part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we are happy to bring you this interview with Elizabeth Bland, an independent artist, an alumnus of the National Library of Medicine, and curator of the NLM exhibition Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Digital Portrait in line drawing style.
Untitled, self-portrait. Modified digital photograph, Elizabeth Bland/eb, 2016

Elizabeth Bland: I was born and raised in the Arkansas Ozarks, which border Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. I spent my youth learning violin on an old family fiddle, developing what appears to be a life-long affinity for overalls and, though not easy nor without painful friction at times, discovering how to communicate and connect with people who are seemingly diametrically opposed to you.

In addition to obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in History and Anthropology from the University of Missouri and a Masters in Arts in Museum Studies from the George Washington University, I have worked in a variety of capacities at a variety of cultural institutions around the Washington, D.C. metro area, including the Smithsonian Museums of Natural and American History, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Woodrow Wilson House. My longest professional tenure was with the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in the History of Medicine Division (HMD) Exhibition Program, where I enthusiastically served as Exhibition Coordinator from 2006 until 2011.  Although I consider all of my work at HMD professionally meaningful, the highlight was the amazing opportunity to curate Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine. I am truly excited to be revisiting that project and the Harry Potter series at my lecture, A Look into the Pensieve: Harry Potter at Twenty Years.

Upon leaving the NLM in 2011, I made a professional pivot, relocating to Philadelphia and setting up an at-home studio where I compose sounds, words, and visuals. Having already experienced higher education, in addition to a spending substantive time with the great minds at HMD, I decided to pursue an auto-didactic methodology in furthering my training as an illustrator, writer, and musician. In other words, I’ve spent most of the past five years hermiting, eating many a cheesesteak and hoagie, and developing my creative voice.

CN: What sparked your interest in curating this exhibition about Harry Potter for the National Library of Medicine?

EB: The story behind the Harry Potter’s World exhibition is such a great example of the type of fan culture that surrounds J. K. Rowling’s novels—enthusiastic, curious, and creative.  It also highlights the many ways HMD can delight and surprise with its collections!

It was the week that the last novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was to be released and it was nearly all I could think about. Though it had taken no little bit of poking-and-prodding for me to initially pick up the first in the series, by this week in July 2007, I could not shirk the label of “fan.” As I was attempting to focus on work, there was a commotion out in the HMD Reading Room.  At some point  shortly thereafter, I found myself with my mouth agape as Dr. Stephen Greenberg of HMD informed me that Nicolas Flamel was a “real” person and that Harry Potter is chock-full of actual history, showing me a book from the collection as physical evidence. And it wasn’t the only example: apparently more Harry Potter-related items existed in the Rare Book collection!

Before I had even digested this information, non-Harry Potter fan (but still clearly brilliant!) Exhibition Program Head Patricia Tuohy was suggesting a “spur-of-the-moment” exhibition, with myself writing and Exhibition Program’s Registrar Jill Newmark  (and also-fan) arranging the object display. All of this, of course, could not have been achieved without the invaluable help of Dr. Greenberg and many other HMD staff members.  The project, which took about a week to mount, was warmly received by the community and we were able to move forward with developing a re-imagined traveling exhibition in the form of Harry Potter’s World.

Photograph of a woman speaking in front of group of students.
Teaching “potions” to young witches and wizards. The University of Alberta in Calagary, Canada, 2012.

For the second iteration of our Harry Potter project, we were able to delve deeper into the histories that inspired Rowling’s fictional world, arranging for beautiful photographs to be taken of the rare books in the HMD collection that are unable to travel, and developing an updated online exhibition consisting of higher education modules and secondary education resources that bring Harry Potter into the classroom from a science, history, and literary perspective. Traveling since 2009 (and booked through 2018), over 300 host institutions have borrowed Harry Potter’s World, producing diverse public programming varying from astronomy lessons to public health festivals to natural history lessons with live owls.

Photograph of a woman holding an owl.
Naturalist exhibiting live owl. Champlain College Burlington VT, 2010.

CN: Tomorrow you’ll be at NLM to talk about “A Look into the Pensieve: Reflections on Harry Potter at Twenty Years.” Will you tell us a little about the Pensieve and what we can expect to see?

EB: In the Harry Potter series, a Pensieve is a fictional (i.e. non-historical) magical artifact that allows advanced witches and wizards to revisit details stored in their own (and others’) memories. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore explains to Harry the benefits of this practice:

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

I wanted to draw on the concept of the Pensieve for my lecture, looking not only at the impact of the series on my own experiences, but also at the impact of now several-generations-grown of Harry Potter fans on the larger (mostly Western, but also worldwide) culture. While I do not have a Pensieve within my reach, I do have the Internet, its own type of magical keeper of memories. I will be discussing such vibrant contributions by the fandom as Wrock (HP-themed music genre), the playing of Quidditch by students enrolled at universities and colleges alongside traditional sports, and the social-justice fight being taken on in the name of Dumbledore’s Army.

CN: How has studying the Library’s collections changed the way you think about the Harry Potter series?

EB: My relationship with “Mr. Potter” does not have the most auspicious beginnings, mostly due to my being a freshman in college at the time of our first encounter: Harry Potter was not a book of my childhood, I reasoned, and I had moved on from childhood, hadn’t I? Oh, the hubris of the newly-not young! By that time both my sister and my best friend were handing me their copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I caved. And by the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I was anxiously standing in line for my own copy to devour as soon as it was in my hands. Fortunately, this mistake of Youth only involved overlooking a subjectively enjoyable and objectively impactful series for a few years, not flying too near the sun as Icarus did.

My time at the HMD was transformative to me as a thinker and as a creative, and the Harry Potter exhibition was no exception. The project’s historical consultant, Dr. Mark Waddell of Michigan State University (surprise! a fan of the series) suggested some readings to flesh out my understanding of the History of Science, or as I came to see it, “histories of this thing-we-call-science-for-right-now.” It became clear to me that the thinkers who influenced the logic of Rowling’s world were not adherents to a monolithic concept called “science,” nor were they attempting to create such a field.

Woodcut illustrating a woman surrounded by chemical aparatus labeled Alchyma.
Detail from the title page of The practise of the new and old phisicke…, 1599

Understanding that there is no “Big T” truth, even with things so seemingly black-and-white as “science,” fundamentally altered the way that I view my own scientific literacy, public science and health information, and, most importantly, my health care providers. In the end, they are people trying to use what tools they have encountered, drawn from what others have learned and shared and modified, to help heal their fellow humans (or companion species!).  Just as young Harry discovers an entirely new way of interacting with the world around him, so, too, can we, via intellectual and emotional openness to new ways of conceiving and perceiving.

This is not to say that Rowling’s works are without fault, nor the fandom surrounding it.  While I will discuss some examples of valid criticism of the series in my lecture, for the most part my time spent with Harry Potter and his community (imagined and real) has been nothing but a joy.  Truth be told, the deeper I entered his world, the larger mine became.

Watch on YouTube

As part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the National Library of Medicine presents two special lectures. The celebration will also include a special display of the 15th, 16th, and 17th century books that influenced the Harry Potter series along with the six-banner traveling exhibition, Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine. Visit this special exhibition in the History of Medicine Reading Room at NLM, June 26–30, 2017.

Elizabeth Bland’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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