24 January 2018
One of the most exciting moments when curating our current exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, came when the British Museum kindly agreed to lend us some of their own magical items. The Library and Museum have a long-standing relationship. Apart from having a shared history dating back to 1753 and once occupying the same home at Bloomsbury, we frequently support each others' exhibitions. You may recall, for example, that in 2015 we blogged here about the British Museum's loans to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. We were equally delighted when news came through that the Museum was willing to lend us no fewer than five magnificent items for our Harry Potter show, numbering an astrolabe, some divination cards, a kappa netsuke, a genuine mermaid and the wonderful Battersea Cauldron.
I have to say that we could not help punching the air when we heard that the mermaid and cauldron, in particular, might be wending their way to our exhibition. All five items complement the Library's own books and manuscripts and the other items on display, helping to engage, entertain and educate our visitors in equal measure. We'd like to go on record here to thank the Trustees of the British Museum for their generosity in lending their items to us, and for helping to make our show so spectacular.
Fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels will be familiar with Harry's encounter with the merpeople in The Goblet of Fire. We have a genuine specimen of a mermaid in our exhibition, courtesy of the British Museum. It was presented to the Museum by Princess Arthur of Connaught in 1942, and had allegedly been caught in Japan some 200 years previously. We often say that it is reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Somewhat disappointingly, we have to reveal that this mermaid was made by fusing together the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a fish, and is evidence of an East Asian trend in the 1700s for fabricating merpeople. We have placed it on show in the room devoted to Care of Magical Creatures, alongside medieval illustrations of phoenixes and printed images of two-horned unicorns.
Astrolabes were probably invented by the Greeks 2000 years ago. They provide a two-dimensional map of the heavens, and could be used to identify the stars and planets and for determining latitude. In the Islamic world, they are also used to find the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray. This finely decorated example, on loan from the British Museum, is made of brass inlaid with silver, and can be dated to the 1200s. The Library's curators have chosen to place it alongside a manuscript from medieval Bohemia, depicting astronomers and astrologers on Mount Athos.
The kappa takes its name from the Japanese words for ‘river’ (kawa) and ‘child’ (wappa). They were mischievous creatures, and reputedly pulled people into the lakes and rivers in which they dwelt. This seated example of a kappa is in the form of a netsuke, a small sculptural object that is part of traditional Japanese dress. Netsuke frequently took the shape of mythical beasts and could function as talismans. Carved of wood, the kappa’s head has a distinctive hollow to contain the fluid vital to its strength. We made the decision to place this netsuke in Defence Against the Dark Arts, a room which is also dedicated to basilisks, werewolves and snake magic.
Cartomancy is a form of divination that uses cards to predict the future. This pack from the 1700s is reputedly the earliest designed specifically for divination. The 52 cards follow an unusual procedure. The kings prompt questions that are answered in the form of enigmatic rhyming phrases. Each card was inscribed with the name of a famous astronomer, seer or magician, such as Merlin, Doctor Faustus and Nostradamus. Other items on display in Divination include Chinese oracle bones owned by the British Library and crystal balls loaned by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
Cauldrons are one of the most potent symbols of witchcraft. They were used historically for many different purposes, including preparing potions. This particular example was found in the River Thames at Battersea in 1861, and had perhaps been deposited as an offering to the gods. It is almost 3000 years old and was created by riveting together seven plates of sheet bronze. Visitors to the exhibition can view it in the Potions room, alongside the oldest printed item of witches with a cauldron, dating from 1489, and the 10th-century Bald's Leechbook.
Harry Potter: A History of Magic has proved hugely popular, and thousands of people have visited it in London since it opened last October (it closes on 28 February). We are extremely grateful to the British Museum and all our other lenders for their gracious support, and for helping us to enthral all our visitors, young and old.
Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)
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10 April 2017
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints’ relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome’s reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.
One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris’s Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.
Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.
Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‘For an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone’ (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.
Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.
The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.
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