“The Making of Harry Potter” Exhibition

As many of you probably know by now, I am quite the Potterhead :).

As well as that, I am also co-organising a conference on the cultural impact that the Harry Potter books and films have had in the years between the publication of the first novel in the series (in 1997) to date. I am working on my paper for the conference (taking place at the end of July), “The Making of Home Places in Harry Potter”, where I talk about how in the books houses and homes are characterised in often surprising ways. As I am currently quite immersed in the original material, it was absolutely perfect timing that I was able to book a ticket to take the Warner Bros. Studio Tour to “The Making of Harry Potter” exhibition at Leavesden studios near London this week. The site at Leavesden is a disused airfield that Warner Bros. converted into filming facility when they began production of the Harry Potter franchise (the first film was released in 2001).

Other reasons to be excited were my interests in both films and filmmaking, and exhibition design, particularly when including some interactive technology. The tour didn’t disappoint at any level: rather, it was exhilarating. I won’t give away too many details here in case anyone is planning to go and visit, as surprises are a key aspect of the experience. From an exhibition design and organisation point of view, everything flows really well: small groups are staggered into the exhibit, while there is plenty to see and photograph around the entrance and while queuing – props, set photographs, the front window of the shop, etc.

Set stills displayed all around the entrance hall

The exhibition itself is structured around two large sound stages (called J and K πŸ˜‰ ) and an outdoor area between them where some external sets are displayed, and where you can indulge in a glass of Butterbeer (which is delicious for about three sips before it becomes unbearably sweet). Across the space, visitors encounter both entire sets (such as one of the classrooms at Hogwarts; the Professor Dumbledore’s office, etc.), large and small props (the main gates to the school, wizarding equipment, furniture, costumes and magical creatures!), and a very large collection of production materials such as sketches, models and concept art that were created before filming had begun.

I liked the (apparently) simple interactive elements of the exhibits, such as cauldrons stirring themselves when you stood in front of them, and the wands controlling other surprising behaviours in the exhibit. Although simple, the interaction resonates very closely with the idea of magic in the books, and keeps the additional “gadget” layer light – you want this when you are surrounded by a sensory overload of wizardry! I also liked how the “medieval” look and feel of objects and rooms was not affected by the presence of sleek technology.

Potions classroom, with self-stirring cauldron πŸ™‚

One of the themed exhibits I liked the most is the one on graphics and graphic design, collecting a very large amount of print media that was created to make real a large amount of fictional books, newspapers, object packagings, letters and other similar items mentioned in the books. For example, if you have seen the very first movie “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, you will probably remember the magical letters trying to reach Harry despite the attempts of his non-magical relatives to stop them. They were all handwritten on real parchment.

Letters from Hogwarts from the first film

These are just one of the thousands of items that were created with incredible attention to detail in order to re-create Harry’s world, even if they were to be seen only for fleeting moments in the films – this particular exhibit is a must-see for fans without a doubt!

The full-scale sets are also a very good way to appreciate how a “realistic” environment can be created for a film, from lighting, to building materials and props. Some of the sets have survived for over 10 years of filming and were built to sustain hundreds of cast members and hundreds of staff working on the production. Some of the props were no less robust: one particular sculpture made of actual chocolate and shaped like a phoenix survived for 7 years in a fridge to be used in many banqueting scenes!

Final advice to all Potterheads: get yourselves there. Advice to everyone else: you would enjoy it too πŸ™‚

(BTW I had to exercise great restraint in writing this post)


By luiciolfi

I am Professor of HCI in the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork (Ireland). I research the design, use and evaluation of interactive technologies. I am interested in heritage technologies, mobility, collaborative computing, interactive spaces.

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