Hand colored woodcut illustration of an owl.

Pop Culture Meets NLM Historical Collections: Harry Potter’s World

By Nicole Orphanides ~

Drawing of an owl.
Illustration of an owl from National Library of Medicine’s Historiae Animalium, 1551, by Konrad Gessner.

In 1997, 10-year-old Harry Potter waved his wand for the first time and filled the minds of readers with magic and adventure. Now, in 2017, the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division celebrates the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter’s publication with a special display complete with rare books from the 15th- and 16th-centuries, a six-banner traveling exhibition, public programming, and a few fun props.

While the magical realms of the wizarding world exist solely in minds of the readers, Potter mania in the last two decades proves the appeal of this wizarding world series infused with positive values and relatable characters. Widespread and global awareness of the franchise suggests Harry Potter will remain news-worthy and a fan favorite into the next generation. Harry Potter‘s pop culture status is significant because it gives a diverse audience a shared experience. This community—a body of readers, film goers, students, parents, teachers—is brought together through the epic tale. The books, films, fan created websites, games, merchandise, and theme park confirm the phenomenon’s place within popular culture.

So what happens when you blend a pop culture phenomenon with  historical collections?

Photograph of one opened book, two closed books, and two pendant necklaces.
The National Library of Medicine’s Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis, 1512, by Hieronymus Brunschwig, next to the London, 1997, and New York, 1998, publications of J.K. Rowling’s first book in the Harry Potter series.

In 2007, the National Library of Medicine’s Exhibition Program launched its exhibition Do Mandrakes Really Scream? Magic and Medicine in Harry Potter and in 2009 revised that exhibition into Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine. The exhibition merges the fictional wizarding series with the History of Medicine Division’s rare books collection to explore how many of the characters, themes, plants, and creatures in Rowling’s stories are based in history, medicine, or magical lore. Now, in 2017, the online exhibition features an updated look and additional content in the exhibition’s new digital gallery.

Digital screenshot of collection of images.
Harry Potter’s World digital gallery featuring books and illustrations from the National Library of Medicine’s historical collection.

The use of the historical collection to ground the exhibition was careful and intentional. The Harry Potter series draws on themes related to Renaissance thinking on topics such as alchemy, astrology, botany, and natural philosophy. The library’s collection of books printed before 1501 (known as incunables) and 16th–18th century books include works on these subjects produced by Renaissance philosophers. These books provide valuable insight into the period and how its traditions influenced the development of Western science and medicine.

Pairing the historical collection with the themes in Harry Potter enriches the reader’s experience. On the web, visitors can view the books in our collection as objects of history while exploring thematic connections between the Harry Potter novels and Renaissance endeavors in understanding potions, herbs, monsters and medicine. A first-hand look at Hortus Sanitatis, 1491 shows images of real and imagined plants observed by Renaissance scholars, such as the mandrake. Though best known for describing medical practices, Ambroise Paré’s 1633 and 1634 works illustrate the fantastic animals in which many natural philosophers of the time believed, such as unicorns and sea creatures.

Providing a 21st century audience with Harry Potter related content they might recognize has big benefits for the Library. Through the phenomenon of Harry Potter we engage both fans and the general public and we hope to help our audience connect to a historical subject and time. This approach—presenting historical content with a popular culture connection—may even help visitors get to the ‘big idea’ faster.

The NLM Exhibition Program traveling exhibition services currently has six copies of the six-banner exhibition that travel across the world. From October 2015 to September 2016, the exhibition visited 40 different venues, and there were 119,960 reported visitors to the exhibition. A survey from Laurel County Public Library, London, KY in July 2016 noted:

“Visitors to the Laurel County Public Library’s traveling exhibition from the National Library of Medicine greatly enjoyed the exhibit. Local library patrons have a great love for all things relating to Harry Potter, and this exhibition gave visitors an opportunity to think about this beloved character in a new and interesting way.”

Photograph of a six-banner exhibition.
The National Library of Medicine’s six-banner exhibition which has six copies that travel across the country and internationally. Learn more about booking an exhibition.

Host venue sites including public libraries and schools have reported successful engagement with patrons through additional public programming with the exhibition. From October 2016 to April 2017, the six copies have visited 26 different institutions and exhibitors have reported that 79,159 visitors have viewed Harry Potter’s World. These same exhibitors have also reported organizing 29 programs with 2,534 people in attendance. A survey from Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County, Rochester, NY in March 2017 noted:

“As a public library, we want to get people excited about science, about history, and about reading in general. The Harry Potter’s World exhibit did such a great job at relating fiction to science, and the novels are ubiquitously recognized, thus allowing us to reach a wide range of people.”

Harry Potter’s World remains one of the most popular traveling banners the Library has developed to date. The exhibition’s popularity suggests that the combination of popular culture and historical content is successful. Perhaps exhibitions that draw from popular culture while providing a historical framework are primed for success in the modern climate. By offering up popular culture as foray into history, we are setting the stage for visitors to connect with a historical subject and time, while enriching both their experience of the novels and their understanding of medical history. Most importantly, we are getting visitors excited about the medicine, science, and history.

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.

Photograph of woman.Nicole Orphanides is a public historian and independent contractor working as an exhibition coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. Ms. Orphanides earned her Master’s of Arts in Public History at American University. When she is not in the office, she enjoys touring historical sites in Washington, D.C. and around the world.


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