KEY WEST -- On the surface, there might not seem to be much connection between the 1622 shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha and fictional orphaned wizard Harry Potter.
But enter the second floor exhibit at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, and the story of the wizard hero comes to life, with more than 60 rare 17th century shipwreck artifacts including cauldrons, surgical tools, a golden goblet and swords.
I was looking for a new way to tell the story of the shipwrecks, said executive director Melissa Kendrick, who has worked at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum for 22 years. But when I sat down with my staff, they instantly thought I had lost my mind.
She knew she had a legitimate hook: the Renaissance. The shipwrecks came from that period, and author J.K. Rowling based her wildly popular seven-book series on research she did from that time, when alchemy was the main science.
The exhibit, Harry Potters World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine, opened last month. It is based on a smaller traveling exhibit of six panels produced in 2008 by the National Library of Medicine.
Soon after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book of the series, was published, a reference librarian and historian at the National Library of Medicine showed co-workers a 1618 copy of a book written by a real alchemist, Nicolas Flamel. He lived in Paris and worked to discover the secret of the philosophers stone, a charm that was thought to turn base medals like lead into gold and silver.
In Rowlings Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron meet a famous wizard. His name: Nicolas Flamel.
The librarians curiosity about whether other books in their collection were connected to the Harry Potter series led to the well-researched exhibit, which has been seen in libraries all around the country.
But the six-panel exhibit has never before been used as the starting point for a more polished and fascinating look at the beliefs of that period, including the myth of the philosophers stone.
You learn the story behind the story, local writer and publicist Carol Shaughnessy said. I cant imagine other Harry Potter fans like me wont walk out of that exhibit and be able to say they know stuff that very few other Harry Potter fans know.
In the third book of the series, Hermione saves the day with a fictional device called the time turner which allows her to step back in time and be in two places at once.
At the Mel Fisher exhibit, I discovered the time turner most likely was based on a mariners instrument called the astrolabe, Shaughnessy said. When I saw it, I must have spent two minutes just staring at it and remembering the story.
Kendrick employed four interns, three from college and one from high school, to help. The museum staff knew history. The students lent their expertise on Harry Potter.
The tour begins with each person picking up a card that lists all the supplies needed to enter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. All but one of the items, which include the book Magical Drafts and Potions and a set of brass scales, can be found at the shops in Diagon Alley.
The exhibit shows the slow evolution of medicine from mysticism to science. Superstition and magic led the way to scientific discovery.