Just off the central rotunda of the Yale Medical School, past the teratology (the study of monsters) display and above the collection of human brains, you’ll find the main room of the Medical Historical Library. It’s an imposing, wood-paneled room, and on most days, the first thing you’ll see walking into it is the giant portrait of Andreas Vesalius hanging over the fireplace. Vesalius, whose depictions of public dissections in “De humani corporis fabrica” are considered the foundation of modern anatomy, is a grim-looking man in somber clothes: He matches the décor.
If you walk into the library from now until Feb. 28, however, you’ll find Vesalius slightly obscured. Brightly colored signs with the names of the four Hogwarts houses hang from the second-level balcony; a display of magical kitsch and multi-lingual editions of “Harry Potter” rests to the left of the entrance; and a set of panels containing a combination of text and images stands directly in front of the fireplace. The space is temporarily home to the National Library of Medicine’s traveling show, “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine,” and although the Potter aesthetic might seem incongruous under Vesalius’s stern gaze, the exhibit is concerned with making a strong case for their relation.
From the immersive theme park in Orlando to the interactive reading experience of pottermore.com, the Harry Potter universe is continuously being animated and re-animated — virtually, physically, culturally — for a variety of purposes. “Harry Potter’s World” capitalizes on the power of the magic metaphor; each of the six large panels that comprise the exhibit links a thematic aspect of the wizarding world to a specific person and text in the history of science. The subject of “Herbology” is paired with Jacob Meydenback’s plant catalogue, “Hortus Sanitatis,” and “Immortality” goes with Agrippa’s “De Oculta Philosophia,” and so on. In this context, Harry Potter acts as both cultural access point and mnemonic device. The task the exhibit asks of you is simple: You can use one story to understand another.
The exhibit argues that the fantasy of Harry Potter is based in real historical truths: Magic, we learn, has “an important role in the development of Western science.” In sometimes comically jarring or forced ways, the information on the panels illustrates this interpretation. “Like Harry’s professors, 16th-century Swiss naturalist and physician Konrad Gesner appreciated the knowledge gained by studying nature,” begins one such clumsy simile on the “monsters” panel. Later, words from Sirius Black on the persecution of merpeople are juxtaposed with information about the medical reformer Paracelsus, who apparently “appreciated what other cultures could teach about healing.”
The beliefs that Gesner, Paracelsus and others held about animals, plants and people are often fascinating, but the exhibit locates them in contemporary scientific discourse in a way that feels didactic. A clear ideology is at stake, one of respect for the diversity of life, objective observation and the sanctity of the experimental process. The environs of the Medical Historical Library reinforce this argument; Harry Potter is implicated in a history of “the steep ascent from the unknown to the known.”
I’m more invested in an inverse proposition: that the processes we consider to be objective and scientific have their roots in the mystical and the occult. The panel on “potions” insists that the practice of alchemy led linearly to modern chemistry. But the text referenced, “Aurifontina Chymica,” relates a story in which alchemy and chemistry are inextricably entwined. The spelling of the word itself, “chymica,” reveals its double origin. Tracing a narrative of influence becomes harder when the objects in question are not easily described or differentiated.
Just as I don’t really want to yoke Paracelsus and Sirius Black together in a quality called “tolerance,” I’m also skeptical that the knowledge found in herbals or alchemical treatises was incorporated smoothly into the bodies of thought called “biology” and “chemistry.” Perhaps this reaction is partially the point, or at least the point that I drew from my observation: What’s really interesting about this exhibit is not the content itself, but the potential for interactions, congruent or not, among the objects, bodies and literatures that it evokes.
If you go, make sure to attend one of series of related talks (I’m going to “Herbals: food as medicinal and medicinals as food”), look at pictures of human dissections in Vesalius, or investigate a set of surgical instruments for amputating and trepanning. Be curious, be critical, and don’t let the exhibit alone determine the terms of your engagement.