Wizards and masterpieces

Harry Potter at the Museum of Science, and another look at the Rose
By GREG COOK  |  November 6, 2009

YOU WANT INTERACTIVE? Try sitting in Hagrid’s giant armchair.

“Harry Potter: The Exhibition” | Museum of Science, Science Park, Boston | through February 21

“The Rose at Brandeis: Works from the Collection” | Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St, Waltham | Through May 23

At “Harry Potter: The Exhibition” at the Museum of Science, when a robed attendant places the sorting hat on a visitor’s head and soon after a door whooshes open to reveal the Hogwarts Express breathing steam and broadcasting train sound effects, you find yourself filled with the kind of giddy expectation you feel when you get your hands on a Potter book on the day it’s released.

It’s the anticipatory thrill of setting off for adventure and, you know, magic. “Harry Potter: The Exhibit,” a wondrous selection of costumes and props from the movies displayed in sets lavishly constructed for the exhibit, delivers Hollywood star wattage, holy Potter relics, and the rush of nostalgia of (re)visiting this place we’ve heard so much about.

After the train, you walk past a witty video portrait of the Fat Lady guarding the Gryffindor dorm at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. She tries to sing the right note to shatter a glass, fails, and surreptitiously smashes the glass on a wall. A bedroom displays sacred artifacts: Harry’s Marauder’s Map, his Hogwarts acceptance letter, his signature round glasses. Feel the gravitational pull of standing at the magnetic core of a great new societal myth.

The exhibit offers school uniforms and teachers’ robes, magic wands and flying brooms. The costumes, cunningly designed, resonate with Western archetypes, from soccer stars to Klansmen to Parisian schoolgirl Madeline. Even McLovin could wear Harry’s Quidditch uniform and look like a hunk. It’s stitched into the garment. Ron’s worn, misshapen, hand-me-down outfits inspire a renewed warmth for him. Professor Umbridge’s sickly sweet pink suit — crossing Chanel and Queen Elizabeth — combined with a generous selection of her decorative kitty plates filled me with revulsion.

Elsewhere, you can pull a squeaking mandrake out of its pot, toss Quaffles through Quidditch hoops, and sit back in Hagrid’s giant armchair. Broadsides warn, “The wizarding community is currently under threat from an organization calling itself Death Eaters — be vigilant.” The books were always about the clash between good and evil, but the September 11 attacks changed how they felt, and how J.K. Rowling (who barely gets a mention here) wrote them. Anxieties slithering through the stories came more and more to parallel our War on Terror fears. In a smoky graveyard, we come face to face with the evil Lord Voldemort himself — or at least his wardrobe. The filmy fabric of his gray-green robe — a cross between a kimono and a silk hospital gown — billows with menacing dash.

Yet there’s something missing here. You can feel you’ve rummaged through a school cloakroom with all the uniforms. There’s only so many ways you can iron or rumple wardrobe to give it some individuality. The mannequins of magical creatures seem sadly — what’s the right word? — fake. There’s not enough round-rim glasses and Fat Ladies, not enough of Rowling’s wit and gift for narrative demanding that you turn the page.

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