Harry Potter: The Exhibition – Chicago, IL, USA

From April 30, 2009, to September 27, 2009, Harry Potter: The Exhibition was hosted at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. This was its first North American stop and first stop overall.

Today was the day that the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL previewed Harry Potter: The Exhibition to several representatives from the various Harry Potter fansites. I, on behalf of MuggleNet.com, was thrilled to attend.

My immediate impression upon entering the museum was that it was the perfect place for this sort of thing. The displays I walked past on my way to check-in were beautiful and spacious, and careful planning was immediately apparent. I quickly found Jeff Guillaume of HPANA and Edward Drogos from The Leaky Cauldron waiting patiently at the table. It is always good to see familiar faces at these events and, even better, I was among good friends. After a few minutes, the rest of our group had arrived and we were led onwards through the Brain Food Court – past the Big Idea Store – and up the escalators where our tour began. The exhibit is housed in a special section of the museum specifically built to accommodate the needs and desires of Exhibitgroup/Giltspur, the marketing agency that created this. We were taken outside where the line begins and led around to a special set of doors. Once we entered through them, it wasn’t hard to forget where I was… “Allo there! Come on, come in all of you, and welcome!” We’re ushered in by an enthusiastic chap who leads us to the first section of the exhibit: the Sorting Hat. “Well, then, do we have any volunteers?” There was a child among us, but he quickly withdrew his hand, citing a bad experience with a Sorting Hat elsewhere which had put him in Slytherin. I stepped forward and became a Gryffindor, and Tony from DanRadcliffe.com became a Ravenclaw (after pleading rather Harry-like “not Slytherin, not Slytherin!”) The voice that by now is so familiar sounded better than ever in our enclosed room. Then it was time to proceed.

Through the doors on the wall opposite were eight video screens, rectangular and hung vertically like portraits (with frames around them). It was here that we relived a short series of memorable moments from our favorite Harry Potter films, arranged in such a way so as to prepare us for what lies ahead. The true entrance to the exhibit opens, as if by magic, at the conclusion of the short video. If the sound and lighting weren’t enough to take you in already, staring you down is the Hogwarts Express… The artifacts to be found beyond this entry-point are many, and rather than try to give an exact blow-by-blow or inventory (as can be found in other reports), I will from this point highlight my own personal favorites. The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle comic strip: We read about it in Chamber of Secrets, and here is an issue sitting next to some of Ron and Harry’s school possessions. In this edition, Martin tries to learn French. This comic strip was one of the various props produced to appear in the background of shots in the movies. Yet I haven’t seen it, there is no attention paid to it by the narrative of the films, and it is one of the many wonderful things created by J.K. Rowling which I, as a reader, would just love to have realized. Here it is for the whole world to see! A handbook of Do-It-Yourself Broomcare, straight out of the books, rests next to a list of members of Dumbledore’s Army. Nearby is Ron’s Howler in both its closed and opened form. Pumpkin juice (with a pumpkin on the lid!) and Harry’s acceptance letter are all some of the first items on display.

The attention to detail in any one of these props is extravagant. I notice for the first time engravings of a castle on the Golden Egg from the First Triwizard Task. A potions display features what can only be described as “stuff in jars” next to the very intricate costume of Professor Slughorn in the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film. There is a box labeled bezoars, with bezoars inside, and two editions of Advanced Potion Making by Liberatius [sic] Borage. Very cool.

Across the way is a Divination display. What’s that in the teacup? Oh no, it’s the Grim!! Perhaps my favorite display in the exhibit is the one on Professor Lockhart. If not for this exhibit, the many poses actor Kenneth Branagh took for his character’s various eccentricities would be lost. It is nothing short of hilarious to see him in his various poses for both book covers and signed photographs. The portrait from his DADA classroom, featuring Lockhart painting a portrait of Lockhart, is the backdrop for these. In the glass case also rests a completely developed Defense Against the Dark Arts Second Year Essential Knowledge Test. Yes, this is the 27-odd question exam featuring the questions on good ol’ Gilderoy himself – only viewable in a deleted scene from the second film otherwise, and certainly requiring a closer look.

Across the way is a display of Professor Umbridge’s office. I had heard tales from friends who had visited the fifth movie set about the painstaking detail taken in producing the kitty-cat plates now seen here. It is one thing to see them on the screen and quite something different to have them right in front of you. I was not tempted to eat off of them; however, I think I know a few people who would.

Next were the hands-on features of the exhibit which are worth, in and of themselves, a standing ovation. First is the Mandrake table, where all you have to do is pull on the plants and, before you know it, there’s a Mandrake beneath it screeching at you. I never thought I would experience anything more fun than Whac-a-Mole but I must assure you, reader, that I was wrong. Through the Quidditch tent entrance ahead hang uniforms worn by Ireland and Bulgaria, Cedric Diggory, Harry, and even Ron from Half-Blood Prince. The hands-on display in this area is the Quaffle Toss, in my opinion, a complete triumph. Fans who’ve seen the movies should have a pretty clear picture of the red leathery ball known as the Quaffle and will know that it is oddly shaped. Until now, only the actors and set-people will have actually held one. Not only do visitors get to hold one, but quite like an arcade-style game, there are goal posts set up. Passing a Quaffle through these hoops sets off the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch bell. The ring of success will never quite be so good to hear in the films, for now, I have triggered it with my bare hands. I foresee museum officials needing to move people forward from this game after their first hour of non-stop playing.

Inside Hagrid’s Hut, the costume which is impossibly large hangs welcomingly. A sign next to Hagrid’s chair reads “Please sit,” so we do. It’s huge. Across the way by the fireplace is the table, upon which an egg, slightly cracked, begins to wiggle. The magic, all of it, is alive in this exhibit. It’s real, tangible, and right there waiting to be witnessed.

There are 25 costumes throughout this exhibit, and some belonged to Harry, Ron, or Hermione in their early years. Even Draco Malfoy’s Quidditch robes from Chamber of Secrets are here, and boy – are they small! At one point, such costumes were worn by real-life eleven[-] and twelve[-]year[-]olds. To put it another way and then move on, seeing them on the screen does not make it clear just how teeny!!!! our favorite trio was.

Moving on I see it’s getting darker outside… or rather, inside, and soon I find myself in the Forbidden Forest. There are Centaurs, yes, among other things. Tom Riddle’s school uniform worn by Christian Coulson in Chamber of Secrets is here, as well as his diary complete with basilisk fang. As far as I can tell, this is the only Horcrux on display so far. There is a Portkey, though… it’s the Triwizard Cup! Two chess pieces from Sorcerer’s Stone are present. The rook has got to be eight feet tall. A Dementor hangs suspended, many wanted posters from Movie 6 of Amycus and Alecto Carrow, Bellatrix Lestrange, and others hang warningly. The Angel of Death graveyard statue is present, and up in the sky, I see that the Dark Mark has been cast. I want to get out of the darkness sooner rather than later, so I do.

I find my way past an ornate, aged torch pillar and breathe a sigh of relief as I realize that I am now about to enter the Great Hall. Educational Decrees hang from the wall – each one unique and imposing. Before I enter, I notice a costume in the corner. It is the Bloody Baron’s. This is, in my opinion, the must-see costume of the exhibit, for how excellent (and ruffled!) it is and how little we could possibly make of it from its appearance in the movie. The Great Hall is the final area of the exhibit featuring plenty of candies and foods and deserts, some of Dumbledore’s costumes and yes, as reported elsewhere, a naked Dobby looking rather confused. I would like to clear up that, on the exhibit’s own list of must-see artifacts, Dobby is listed as a study model used for the second film. Thus, he must be this way so that the graphic artists could properly render him. A Cornish pixie exists earlier in the exhibit much in the same way. On the far corner of the Great Hall is a section devoted to the Yule Ball. Hermione’s gown and Ron’s dress robes are unbelievable up close. It isn’t clear in the films just how many flowers appear on Ron’s robes… There are too many.

Our last stop is the gift shop. It feels just as exciting being in here. Snow globes, busts, action figures, books, movies, Hogwarts buttons and pins, and keychains are all available here in one place. According to officially released material, nearly 6,000lbs of rigging, lighting, speakers, cables, and special effects were used to create the exhibition and it is certainly not hard to see how. From start to finish, the places we feel we know are ours to explore. The attention to detail paid by every artist on the props and costumes absolutely glistens in this intimate environment where they seem to live and breathe on their own.

At the roundtable discussion, I am only able to compliment the makers on a job well done. The exhibition is the product of 2-3 years conceptual and visualization work and there was much collaboration between the exhibit makers and the filmmakers. David Heyman and David Yates also provide their stories on certain props for the audio tour of the exhibit, something I will definitely return and try.

Harry Potter: The Exhibition is not only a must-see for every Harry Potter fan. I would go so far as to call it a Harry Potter fan’s Mecca, for inside it is housed all of the elements of what makes J.K. Rowling’s world so magical and a reminder of how that world can so easily exist within our own.



Don’t forget to check out our bonus fan reports by MuggleNet readers Heather and Selena. You can also read our initial announcement.

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Eric S.

Eric Scull joined MuggleNet in November of 2002. Since that time, he’s presided over a number of sections, including name origins and Dear Hogwarts, but none so long as the recently revived Crazy Caption Contest. Eric is a Hufflepuff who lives in Chicago and loves the outdoors.