At the Museum of Science on Sunday evening, I overheard a family talking excitedly about the "Harry Potter" exhibit that's coming in October. They were from California, and they joked that they might have to plan another trip to Boston to see it.
Clearly, the Museum of Science has struck a pop culture chord by inviting the young wizard and his friends to the Hub for a four-month stay.
J.K. Rowling's books have done a great deal: they've motivated and inspired millions of young readers, and they've created a fantasy world that plenty of adults have wanted to enter. Many of the Warner Brothers-made Harry Potter movies have been extremely well done, and I'm looking forward to the opening of a vast theme park experience at Universal Studios in Orlando next year.
But there's something about spells and potions, witchcraft and wizardry, Philosopher's stones and dark arts, that feels retrograde and anti-science to me.
I want to be clear: I'm not against Harry in any way, or the idea that fantasy is an important part of our culture. But what does magic have to do with science?
Magic is about incantations and wand-waving that summon supernatural forces to make something mysterious and amazing happen. Science is about understanding the rules of the natural world, and how they can be used to make amazing things happen. My air conditioning this morning is not powered by magical incantations: there is a power plant somewhere, and an electrical distribution infrastructure, that is powering the fans and compressors that blow cool air in and hot air out.
I called up Paul Fontaine, the museum's vice president of education, to find out how much educational value there will be in the exhibit.
Fontaine told me that there was "huge competition for this exhibit," which is now on display at Chicago's venerable Museum of Science & Industry, and will only come to about a half-dozen U.S. cities. "Boston is the northeast premiere," he said, sounding a bit like a movie mogul.
"There's no escaping that popular culture is popular," Fontaine said, arguing that the exhibit will attract people to the museum from a wide range of backgrounds, some of whom may never have visited before.
I asked Fontaine if he'd seen the comments on this Boston.com blog post about the exhibit. (Among them: "The only science behind this is economics" and "Could a creationist or intelligent design exhibit be far behind?") He acknowledged that they contained "some real concern about why is this at a science museum."
Fontaine noted that they've done lots of exhibits linked to pop culture, from "Star Wars" to "CSI" to superheroes to "Lord of the Rings." The museum designed the "Star Wars" exhibit itself, which focused on the science of magnetic levitation vehicles and the engineering that goes into robots and prosthetic devices. The "Lord of the Rings" exhibit came from a New Zealand museum, and delved into the ways digital imagery was used to create the realistic-looking fantasy realms of those films. The "CSI" exhibit came from the Fort Worth Science Museum, and explored how forensic science is used to solve crimes.
The Harry Potter exhibit, on the other hand, was created by Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Becker Group, an "experiential marketing company" in Baltimore that "turns incredible brands into unforgettable experiences."
Fontaine said the exhibit will focus on what it takes to tranfer J.K. Rowling's fantasy world from the pages of a book onto the silver screen. The exhibit includes lots of costumes and props and models that were used to make the movies' monsters. But when I asked Fontaine if the exhibit gets into the process of computer-generated special effects, he said it doesn't. "It's weighted more towards the artifacts from the films, but there's a good dose of answers about how they created a character that looked a certain way, or a scene that looked a certain way."
According to the exhibit's elaborate official Web site, "guests will get an up close and personal look at the artistry and craftsmanship that went into creating the iconic props and costumes that appeared throughout the Harry Potter films."
But Fontaine said that the exhibit will be supplemented with live presentations and lectures about how movie magic is made, as well as introductions to the live animals that are featured in the films, from owls to rats to ferrets.
Tickets to the Harry Potter exhibit will cost $26 for adults and $23 for kids (an audio tour is an additional $5), but the price includes admission to the rest of the museum which visitors can use on the same day -- or anytime within the next six months.
Yes, Fontaine told me, "it's fair to say we're expecting some lines."
Fontaine said he hopes that skeptics will "give us the benefit of the doubt and come experience [the exhibit]." The museum "takes its mission seriously, and we think you can take pop culture and make it relevant to science and technology and engineering."
What do you think?
Is the magical world of Harry Potter compatible with what we're trying to teach at a science museum? Is the exhibit simply a powerful way to get people into the museum, at which point they might be exposed to other exhibits? Or is it an economic necessity that will buoy the museum's finances in challenging economic times?
(One more note: it's interesting that there's another Harry Potter exhibit, this one developed by the National Library of Medicine [part of the National Institutes of Health], that seems much more science-oriented, if not nearly as flashy. This exhibit points out that "...the magic in the Harry Potter books is partially based on Renaissance traditions that played an important role in the development of Western science, including alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy.")