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 Potter’s 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 philosopher’s stone, a charm that was thought to turn base medals like lead into gold and silver.
In Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s 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 philosopher’s stone.
“You learn the story behind the story,” local writer and publicist Carol Shaughnessy said. “I can’t imagine other Harry Potter fans like me won’t 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 mariner’s 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 Hogwart’s 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.
Renaissance tools, such as forceps and teeth extractors, look pretty much the same today.
“We had a fabulous set of surgeon tools from the Atocha just sitting in a humble case, where they were the last stride before people step into the treasure gallery,” Kendrick said. “I bet people zoomed past them to get to the bling and never even noticed them.”
Three times a week, Harry Potter went to the greenhouses behind the castle to study herbiology, learning to take care of strange plants and fungi. At the exhibit, barrels that say “lift and sniff” are filled with fennel, rosemary and cumin.
It was believed that fennel seeds built confidence and courage when hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits and keep away ghosts. Rosemary placed under a pillow was thought to repel evil spirits and bad dreams. Cumin seeds thrown at a wedding ceremony would ensure the bride and groom a happy life and keep chickens — and husbands — from wandering.
Mandrakes and frogs
To tell the story, the museum put together glass cases filled with old corked bottles, labeled horned slugs, frog parts, sands of time, jellyfish stingers and the elixir of life.
In Harry Potter’s second year, he learned how mandrakes, real plants studied by botanists, were the key ingredient of a curative potion for his severely injured classmates.
When mandrake roots are dug up, the plant screams and kills all who hear it. That’s why the kids wore earmuffs in the book.
Mandrakes, associated with medicinal and magical properties, were included in two Bible references and four references in the literary works of William Shakespeare. Possessing mandrakes was one of the charges brought against Joan of Arc in the 1431 trial that resulted in her being burned at the stake.
“These roots do exist,” one museum worker said of the manmade mandrakes in the exhibit. “And the roots do sort of resemble a human figure.”
Before changing the battery in one of the “mandrakes,” the worker said: “Cover your ears.”
The crown of the exhibit is the golden goblet, recovered from the Atocha. It would have held a bezoar stone, which was thought to be a universal antidote against any poison.
Potter uses such a stone to save Ron Weasley from poisoned mead.
The exhibit even found a way to incorporate a large heavy cannon, which was used for the previous pirate exhibit and would have been problematic to move. It was part of the ceremony to open the Quidditch World Cup (basically soccer on brooms).
“I worried when we were working on the exhibit that we might not have the right balance,” Kendrick said. “I didn’t want it to be too cheesy or too much of the kids and not enough of the history. I think we got it right. And I hope people enjoy it as much as we enjoyed doing it.”
A previous version of this article misstated the century of the artifacts on display.