December 29, 2009
Harry Potter: The Exhibition, or What Location Entertainment Adds to a Transmedia Franchise

This article has been cross-posted from Henry Jenkins' blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

While in Cambridge for the Futures of Entertainment conference, my wife and I stopped over at the Boston Museum of Science which is currently playing host to Harry Potter: The Exhibition. We had both attended a fascinating presentation about the design and development of this exhibit during last Summer's Azkatraz convention in San Francisco and so we had high anticipations for the show and were not disappointed.

If you live anywhere near Boston, you should definitely try to make it there for the exhibit which runs through Feb. 21. The exhibit is pricy since you have to pay a fee above and beyond the price of admission to the museum itself, but we found it more than worth it.

After the jump, Henry applies the concepts of transmedia from his Futures of Entertainment 4 keynote to the Harry Potter exhibit.

Since my head was still filled with thoughts from two days of conversations about transmedia entertainment, the exhibit gave me some chances to reflect upon what location based entertainment can contribute to a larger cross-media franchise. Throughout, I will be making reference to some of the principles I introduced in my "The Revenge of the Oragami Unicorn" posts, so if you missed them, you may want to pause now and catch up. We'll wait up for you.

First, we might think of the exhibit as an example of immersion. That is, from the very start, we are encouraged to enter into J.K. Rowling's universe as manifest in the feature film franchise. Before we enter the exhibit, one or two children are asked to step up, put on the sorting hat, and get placed into the proper "house." The museum has lovingly recreated some of the key settings, filled them with costumes and props, and thus offer us a chance to tour the fictional environment. We can, for example, enter into Hagrid's Hut and even sit in his giant chair which dwarfs even the adults in the party, or we can enter the Great Hall as it is decorated for one or another of the festive ocassions depicted in the story. The designers went to some length to minimize the number of glass cases we have to look through, prefering to situate props and costumes in their "natural" settings, such as the Gryfindor Boys Dormatory or a Quiddich Trophy Room.

Some of the professor figures -- such as Lockhart or Umbridge -- get represented through their living quarters. We see the life size self portrait of Lockhart or experience directly the pink monstrosity, complete with mewing cat plates, which is Umbridge's personal quarters. As we enter and exit the exhibit, we must pass the interactive portraits which figure so strongly in the films and our entrance also takes us past the railroad car that the students take from Paddington Station to Hogwarts School.

Often, a sense of being embedded in the world gets created by scale as we find the dementors towering above us when we meet Voldemort and his minions or when we see how much larger than lifesize Hagard's costumes are. There was something magical about the time spent inside the exhibition precisely because it felt as if we had left Boston and entered into the territory of the imagination. Everything was familiar because we knew them so well from the books and films so this sense of immersion was a kind of homecoming.

As may already be suggested from the above, the exhibit focuses primarily around the Harry Potter books and films as a world rather than as a story. We can imagine, for example, a trip which took us through a series of vignettes which lay out the memorable moments from the narrative as a series of spectacular spaces. To a large degree, this sense of transforming events into spaces would characterize many of the earliest exhibits in Fantasyland at the Disney Theme Parks -- the Peter Pan or Snow White rides come to mind as the most obvious examples of this process. And something similar occurs often when films are adopted into video games. After all, games, amusement parks, and museums are organized spatially and our primary experience is a movement through compelling landscapes, but what gets represented in those spaces may have strong or weak narrative hooks.

I will bow here before the ludologists who would argue that such spaces are not narratives -- yet we may see them as evoking familiar narratives, as part of a storytelling system, as alternative ways we experience exposition which alters our relationship to the more overtly narrative manifestations of the franchise.

There are some examples in the Harry Potter exhibition which point to very specific moments in the films -- for example, there's an arrangement of the costumes which the primary characters wore to the Yule Ball which unmistakingly refers to specific events. But most of what is showcased here are recurring elements from the fictional world, scenes which appeared across multiple books or films, even if they are more central to some installments than others. There is a sense of the passing of time contributed by some exhibits which juxtapose the costumes worn by the primary characters over time, allowing us to watch the characters grow up across the series.

The exhibit rewards our sense of fan mastery, both by allowing us to recognize and place for ourselves various costumes and props, thanks to relatively nonintrusive signage. It allows us to examine each artifact closely and often gain new insights into the characters, as we learn by studying Lockhart's exams and realizing that they ask about nothing other than the teacher's own exploits, or scanning the wrappers of the candies or the covers of the textbooks to see details which never really were visible on the screen but help to flesh out the world of the story. This is often what is meant when tourists comment on the attention to detail -- not simply that we get every detail we expect to see there but that looking more closely teaches us things about the world we would not know from consuming the other media manifestations of the franchise. So, we might see this attention to detail as part of the drillability Jason Mittell has described as a property of complex narrative systems.

There was some tension here between the desire to immerse us in a fictional realm and the desire to provide the kinds of annotation and background we anticipate from a museum experience. There are thus video monitors at various points throughout the exhibit, creating a sense of hypermediacy (see Bolter and Grusin's Remediations). These videos offer us just in time glimpses into key scenes from the films which are evoked by the costumes, props, and settings on display. In some ways, seeing the film footage alongside the costume deepened our sense of immersion, while in other senses, it pulled us out of the suspension of disbelief since these monitors had little to do with the world of Hogwarts and everything to do with our experiences as museum goers.

A greater sense of disjunction was created for me by the experience of taking the audio tour where key production people comment on and provide background on the design choices which went into the construction of these costumes and props. After all, the only justification for this exhibit occupying space in a Museum of Science, other than because of its crowd appeal, has to do with showcasing the technical skills and industrial design which went into the production. We might think of the audio tour as something like a director's commentary on the film world -- except that I always find it hard to listen to the director's commentary and remain absorbed in the fiction at the same time. In the case of a DVD, they represent different kinds of experiences, different modes of interpretation.

Yet walking through the immersive exhibit space and listening to the audio tour invited us to think about what we see as real (through suspension of disbelief) and constructed (through our behind the scenes perspective). In some cases, the information provided was illuminating, inviting us to look closely at the costumes as personifying different aspects of the character's personalities, or explaining why lifesize models were created for some of the mythological creatures, like the Horntail dragon. But it always competed with the fantasy I was constructing in my head about getting to visit Hogwarts and its grounds. This is not a challenge that faces amusement park designers, for example, who are able to simply allow us to immerse ourselves in an entertaining fantasy without feeling compelled to offer educational background.

The exhibit clearly functioned as a cultural attractor -- creating a shared space for Harry Potter fans to gather and have common experiences. I found myself engaged in conversations with many of the other patrons in ways I would have been reluctant to do at an art museum, say, or at the science museum in its normal mode. We had a common relationship to this fiction and in one way or another, we were fans.

The exhibit also was a cultural activator, giving us some things to do -- get sorted upon entrance (if you are lucky enough to get picked), rip up a mandrake root and watch it squirm, through a quiddich ball through a hoop, and so forth.

But many of us came into the museum with our own fantasy investments as well. For example, I strongly identify with the Ravenclaw House and its most famous character, Luna Lovegood. I have been "sorted" through a variety of mechanisms through the years and always end up getting placed in Ravenclaw. Over time, I've discovered many of my closest friends in Harry Potter fandom are also self-identified Ravenclaw, which put us in a minority within the fandom, which veers towards Slytherin (and Snape/Malfoy fans) or Griffyndor (with Harry and friends). Indeed, of the two children being sorted on my tour, both had proclaimed fantasies about being Gryffindor, and were so sorted.

Because of this identification, though, I found myself increasingly annoyed that my house was under-represented in the exhibit -- most blatantly in an area which shows the uniforms of three of the four Quiddich team captains, but makes no mention of the Ravenclaw captain. I suppose even in fantasy you can't be an intellectual and a jock at the same time. :-{ We could accept that Luna is a sufficiently secondary character that she would not necessarily be represented but many of the other secondary characters on the same level of obscurity do find at least token acknowledgement here. The "houses" are so central to fan identifications within the Harry Potter world that it strikes me as odd that one house would be so totally neglected -- except for occassional banners -- and it suggests to me the one major misfire in an otherwise respectfully and lovingly created exhibit.