Exhibit Review: Harry Potter, at the Museum of Science and Industry


As a relatively recent college graduate and (fingers crossed) a future museum professional, I probably shouldn’t be admitting this.  But what is the internet for if not shameful confessionals?  And here is mine: I am something of a Harry Potter fan.  Now, I’m no fanatic – I don’t belong to any Harry Potter fan sites or livejournal groups (do they still have livejournal groups?).  I’ve never been “sorted” by some online quiz (although I think if I were I’d probably be Slytherin, and I’m not sure what that says about my moral compass) and I certainly don’t own any house scarfs or fake scar makeup.  I can, however, translate the Hogwarts motto from Latin to English (“never tickle a sleeping dragon,” ‘natch) and I figured out who RAB was about five minutes after I finished book six.  My point, dear readers, is that while I may not bleed wizard, I do know from Harry Potter.

All of this brings me to Harry Potter: The Exhibition, which is currently open at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.   The MSI is an interesting place – like many modern science museums, it has to straddle the divide between education and entertainment.  Sometimes it does so fantastically, like in the permanent exhibit on modern farming techniques (only in the Midwest, man) and other times it misses the mark dramatically (an enormous fairytale dollhouse? Really?).   So how does Harry Potter: The Exhibition measure up?

Harry Potter: The Exhibition (from now on called simply “Harry Potter,” because adding “the Exhibition”gives it WAY more gravitas than any show about movie sets deserves) is actually pretty cool to look at.  The show is made up entirely of the original props from the first five movies, plus some select pieces from the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (Horace Slughorn represent!)

The exhibition is relatively well-laid out, especially given that it’s set up in a giant special occasions tent outside of the museum.  It’s understandably popular, so visitors are assigned shifts in order to stagger the number of people in the tent at any time.  Even so, it’s crowded – kids and parents jostling with excited teens to get a glimpse of Hermione’s pink sweatshirt from the third film or gaze enraptured upon the Gryffindor boys dorm set.

And the objects certainly are impressive.  Peering into Hagrid’s hut and seeing the everyday objects made huge to fit his giant scale, getting up close and personal with a 3-D mock-up of the terrifying Dementors – it’s all really cool.  The colors, the fabrics, even the crowded walkways convey the feeling of actually being inside a Harry Potter movie.  So yeah, great layout and design, especially considering the limitations of being in a freaking TENT.

So what’s missing?  Well, a lot, actually.  Walking through the exhibit, seeing the Potions classroom rebuilt before your eyes or getting to plop down on Hagrid’s enormous chair is all well and good, but what’s the point?  I mean, what makes Harry Potter: the Exhibition any different from the movie disasters ride at Universal Studios?  Nothing, and that’s a shame.

And once again, I understand that the MSI and blockbuster exhibitions like this one have a difficult job when it comes to mediating between being educational and getting people in the door.  And I’m not a total square: I understand that “edutainment” has a place in museums.  Harry Potter, though, is too much tainment and not enough edu.  The curators of the exhibition (who, I’m pretty sure, are not MSI employees – this is a big traveling show) had the opportunity to teach visitors about all the different kinds of work that go into creating huge fantasy films like Harry Potter, and they missed the mark.  I mean, set designers and builders, costumers, art departments: with a movie like Harry Potter, they’re building whole new worlds for us to explore.  Why not craft an exhibit that lets the visitor see how that world-building works on a micro level?

Just off the top of my head, I can think of three different ways to work that educational, informative aspect into the show:

  1. How wonderful would it be to walk through an exhibit on Harry Potter and watch video interviews with costume designers discussing how they put together Bellatrix Lestrange’s Psycho Chic look?
  2. Or get to see the process of building a wall of the Great Hall from it’s first incarnation as a small model to it’s final life-size version?
  3. I, for one, would love to sit in Hagrid’s enormous chair and watch a video of normal sized people building all these oversized furniture pieces.

Maybe I’m giving the average Harry Potter fan too much credit, but I think most of the people in that tent with me would have loved to learn more about the behind-the-scenes work that went into creating their favorite film series of all time.  Just a hunch.

On an unrelated note, I’ve found myself thinking about the unique issues that go into mounting a show like this.  I mean, the pieces in the exhibition aren’t old or fragile, for the most part, and many of them are there to be touched.  Which means you can do crazy things like mount the show in a non-temperature-controlled TENT (I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m really worked up about this) and let people breathe on things and generally make a nuisance of themselves to a degree that would never be tolerated in a regular museum show.

At the same time, though, because people can get so close you have to do an even better job of assembling the show.  In any exhibit there are tiny little mistakes that slip through the cracks, and it’s okay for the most part because the average visitor won’t be getting close enough to see them.  Here, though, the visitors can see all the awkward padding on the mannequins and the unintended rips and tears on the furniture that come from excited HP fans crawling all over them.    I think it probably requires an entirely different way of thinking about exhibit construction.

So, what’s the final say?  A fun and interactive exhibit on a beloved book and film franchise that could have been so much more interesting and informative than it was.  I so dislike seeing such potential wasted, and if that makes me sound like a Hogwarts professor, than so be it.  I’ll be in the dungeons, teaching Muggle Studies.

5 responses to “Exhibit Review: Harry Potter, at the Museum of Science and Industry

  1. A well-written review. To address your frustration about the missed opportunity, it’s not the employee’s fault (my close friend works it). They have been emphatically discouraged from discussing behind-the-scenes type stuff as the folks that designed it wanted it to be an immersion and not “pull the curtain back”. What’s unfortunate is that people don’t even know what they’re seeing. That wasn’t a 3-D mock-up of a dementor, that was the actual model that was made at Leavesden to be scanned into imaging and animated. Pretty much everything in the exhibit was created for the films and not the exhibit. i found out that the material that frames the quidditch area is the atual material from the Tri-Wizard tent. Who wouldn’t be delighted to know this? When I went through with my friend filling me in, I was sad too that the signage didn’t illuminate people on the fact that what they were looking at were functional parts of the movies. I think the “suits” who put this on underestimate the magic that movie production itself holds over people and erred on the side of staging real items as though they were just decoration. The signs themselves are all just about the story of Harry Potter and not the story of how these things were all made. To anyone visiting, you should approach one of the employees in the exhibit and ask them. I’ve gone out drinking with a lot of them (brits like to drink!) and they all are a bit mutinous about talking about the real magic in the props and whatnot even though they have been told not to.

  2. Thanks for reading and giving your input! It’s so odd that they didn’t think to capitalize on the awesomeness of what they have by talking more fully about it! I’m sure it’s not the employees’ fault – I find that in a museum exhibit, they’re usually the ones most aware of the flaws and most deeply upset by them.

    And I love that they’re willing to bend the rules and talk more about the supposedly “off-limits” topics… that’s really great.

  3. Pingback: Welcome to Hogwarts, blech « The Exhibit Designer

  4. I visited this same exhibit in Toronto at the Ontario Science Center and as a huge Harry Potter fan this was a must-see for me. I too am about to write a review of it on my blog & would like to link your article here if you don’t mind.

    And I fully agree, while it was wonderful to see the original set pieces & who wore what costume & shoes, the exhibit would have been THAT much better if something was written about how the set pieces were made; how long it took to make them; how many people worked on it; how were the set pieces brought to life from the books; the costumes (something which I would’ve loved!). Furthermore, I felt the gift shop was a bit of a tacky, commercial, add-on at the very end & unfortunately MOST of the products there were very expensive! However, I did buy a copy of “The Tales of Beedle the Bard”.

  5. great review! I agree with you, I’d love to have known more behind-the-scenes info. I went to the exhibit today and what really made me mad was the no camera policy!

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