What science can we learn from Harry Potter magic?

Harry Potter Exhibition GigCity EdmontonThe Telus World of Science has been asked to make it crystal clear that Harry Potter, The Exhibition is “not educational.” It’s purely entertainment. And you know what that means. Probably no field trips. Sorry, kids.

Anyway, what is an exhibit featuring props, sets and other bric-a-brac from movies dealing with MAGIC doing in a place devoted to SCIENCE?

“We want to get people in the door,” explains Mike Steger, vice president of communications and marketing for the centre, especially in the “20-something demographic that normally doesn’t come to science centres but are fans of J.K. Rowling’s novels.” Because if they come for Harry Potter, he adds, then maybe they’ll check out other attractions here that are educational.

Harry Potter Exhibition GigCity EdmontonThe “not educational” dictum comes straight from Warner Bros, which commissioned the exhibit based on the No. 1 film franchise in the world (Star Wars being No. 2, but not for long once the new movie comes out). It is meant to travel around the world. It therefore has to appeal to the masses, to circumvent the educational criteria of school systems in at least 10 different countries. And so, entertainment only.

Why not let the fans be the judge of that? We can learn a lot from Harry Potter, the Exhibition – at the very least the magic of marketing.

“You walk through the gift shop and you can see the power of the brand,” says Steger at the end of a recent tour. And indeed you can: $35 T-shirts, a plastic wand with a nice box for $30, Harry Potter branded Jelly Belly “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans” that include worm, vomit and earwax flavours, at $6 for a small box. There’s two entire rooms filled to the brim with all manner of merch. Youngsters considering a career in marketing or show business would do well to study this material carefully.

There’s more to learn than branding. With just a little effort on the part of the producers, Global Event Specialists out of Las Vegas, they could’ve found a lot more educational content here.

The Star Wars “Identities” exhibition was educational. It had components teaching identity; you made decisions throughout the exhibit tour – which planet you’re from, your species, your beliefs, and so on – with an identity assessment given at the end, “You are a Wookie,” for instance. Then there’s the physics angle discussing space travel. And so – BOOM – Star Wars gets an official Educator’s Guide.

See? Not so hard even when you’re an entertainment brand based on complete fantasy.

Harry Potter Exhibition GigCity EdmontonIdentity is key in Harry Potter, too. You start the tour by getting “sorted” by the sorting hat. Fans know well the traits of the different houses in this magical take on the venerable British boarding school tale: Slytherins are cunning and ambitious, Gryffindors noble and brave, Ravenclaws intelligent and creative and Hufflepuffs loyal and honest. Interpretive guides with delightful British accents help out here – though it appears that whatever house one wants to be in is the house the sorting hat will choose. Just like in the film. They could’ve expanded the powers of the sorting hat to give personality profiles – and just try not to think about that Robot Chicken sketch.

The heart of the exhibition is filled with many examples of the science of modern movie making. These are real props: The Howler from Chamber of Secrets, the Resurrection Stone from Half Blood Prince, the Invisibility Cloak from Philosopher’s Stone, among many items elevated to the status of “artifacts” and relics,” and protected behind glass cases, including Daniel Radcliffe’s costumes that illustrate how much the actor grew during the making of the eight films. You can even play a bit of quidditch. You want monsters? Among a few are Hagrid’s Griffin, the Horn Tailed Dragon, the Angel of Death and the Dementor – the last of which had to be taken out of the exhibition temporarily because they needed it in the last film. Many of the creatures, such Cornish Pixie, started as models which would then be scanned so CGI could take over.

You can wear earphones for an audio tour, too, in which the film designers talk about having to come up with things that only existed in J.K. Rowling’s imagination. That’s educational. There’s a vast assortment of minor props, such as the “magical” newspapers passengers read in the background of the scenes aboard the Hogwart’s Express – the entire train one of the first things people see when entering this exhibit. Some items took many hours, if not days or weeks, to create, even if they were only on screen for half a second. We can learn a lot from this level of craftsmanship, “especially when it comes to movie making and what goes into it,” Steger says. “What I hear from people is that they’re amazed at the level of detail.”

Harry Potter Exhibition GigCity EdmontonHarry Potter is not a quiet exhibition. There’s the screaming fat lady in the picture, the screaming mandrake plants kids are invited to pull, moans and groans and gibbers and howls and on top of it all the relentless swooping of John Williams soundtrack music. The place smells, too. Hagrid’s Hut smells musty, the forbidden forest earthy, fog and smoke waft here and there.

“It’s meant to totally engage your senses,” Steger says.

They thought of everything except education! Or maybe producers knew that attaching an educational guide to a show celebrating magic would draw ridicule. You can’t win.

So what then, of the inherent educational value of encouraging kids to read? Readers devoured Harry Potter books long before they turned into such a powerful movie franchise. Steger says he read the books with his own kids before seeing the movies, and therefore knows more Harry Potter lore than any grown-up should be allowed to. Star Wars didn’t start as a book.

But like the man says, if you come for Harry Potter – for an extra $10 on top of regular adult admission rates – maybe you’ll stay for the planetarium, the forensics lab, the exhibit of disgusting bodily functions, the water table, all sorts of sciencey stuff.

“Our vision to inspire voyages of lifelong discovery,” Steger says, “And that’s not just science. That’s making people want to learn and try new things. We want people to get lost here. People ask, where can we go? Well, where can you not go?”

Harry Potter, the Exhibition runs through March 9. Also watch for the new somewhat related exhibit called How to Make a Monster, opening Dec. 21. This one is officially educational.

(Top picture: Interpretive guide Sarah Ormandy tries on the ‘sorting hat’ at Harry Potter, the Exhibition)

Harry Potter Exhibition GigCity Edmonton