NEW YORK — With its 38-foot-high ceiling, bookcases stuffed with faded, leather-bound volumes and walls festooned with oil portraits that seem to wink, the second floor reading room of the New-York Historical Society bears a striking resemblance to a certain fictional school for wizards.
Which is why it seems appropriate that 50 fans of Harry Potter were gathered here on a recent Friday night to answer some burning questions:
- What is Albus Dumbledore’s full name?
- When is Harry Potter’s birthday?
- What is a recommended remedy for a visit from a Dementor?
- Which pub provides a secret passage to Hogwarts?
If you barely recognize these names and care not how they are connected to the wizard world created by J.K. Rowling, you’re in the wrong oak-paneled library. (If you are curious, the answers are below).
The trivia contest, which was sold out, was part of a three-month schedule of programs offered by the society in conjunction with its exhibition, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which opened Oct. 5.
The eclectic agenda of more than 20 events includes a potions workshop, a one-day course on the history of magic in America, an owl-spotting walk in Central Park and an open-mic night for Potter-inspired storytellers.
This is far beyond what museums typically program around an exhibition. It’s designed to attract younger audiences; and if there ever was a millennial magnet, it is the Boy Who Lived.
“I feel like Harry Potter has always been in my life,” said Jenn Augustine, 29, of Manhattan. “I’ve read all the books, seen all the movies, multiple times.”
As its name suggests, the exhibition, on the first floor of the society’s Central Park West headquarters, includes real history as well, about alchemists, herbalism and astronomy. But it’s not the exhibition that attracted Augustine and her friend Rina Krevat; it’s the opportunity to test their Potter IQ.
“We love trivia,” Krevat said.
Mia Nagawiecki, the society’s vice president of education, can relate to the enthusiasm of the Potterheads. “I’m a millennial, too,” she said. “It’s like Harry’s friends were my friends, and I know that’s true with a lot of people I know.”
Nagawiecki and her staff members devoted a two-hour brainstorming session to come up with the events. “We filled multiple sheets of chart paper on ideas,” she said. “We whittled it down and said, ‘How much can we physically do with time we have and space we have?’ By a process of elimination, we came up with the final list.”
This is a reason museums don’t usually create such ambitious calendars of special programming. “It’s hard to sustain because of staff energy,” said Susie Wilkening, a Seattle-based museum researcher and consultant. The Potter events, she said, far exceed what is generally done, even for a major show.
“With blockbusters, you tend to get a few programs, but there’s more reliance on the exhibit itself to draw people in,” Wilkening said.
Not everyone may be thrilled that the society is so grandly showcasing a work of fiction, and one that has little to do with New York. “There may be some members who think this is inappropriate,” Wilkening said. “But the benefits could be greater engagement with a whole new potential audience.”
Based on the first trivia contest, it seems a good bet that some young adults lured by the Potter sizzle might stick around for the historical steak.
“It worked,” said Joe DiBello wryly. “We’re here.”
When DiBello, 29, and his fiancée, Waldina Pineda, 30, both from Mount Vernon, New York, heard about the exhibition and the special events, Pineda said, “I bought tickets right away.” Not only to two of the trivia nights (four will be held before the exhibition closes on Jan. 27), but to several other events, and the exhibition itself. “We’re big Harry Potter fans, and this is something different.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Kelsey Carthew of Inwood, New York, another millennial participant in the trivia contest. Carthew said this was her first time visiting the Historical Society and that she’d consider coming back, “If it was an event that was interesting to me.”
That, of course, is part of the challenge. The Potter franchise’s popularity among millennials is hard to top. The society is hoping that future programs, such as one coming in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, will prove almost as popular.
“This is our first foray,” Nagawiecki said. “It allows us to challenge some assumptions and push boundaries. How can we engage their intellect and their curiosity and demonstrate to them that there’s a different kind of learning experience they can have in museums and specifically at the New-York Historical Society?”
A two-hour trivia contest was certainly one way. Arrayed at 11 tables, the participants — mostly young women — broke into teams of up to six members with names like Snapes on a Plane and Dobby’s Revenge.
For their entry fee of $25, each participant received a poster from the coming Potter film, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald,” and Harry Potter pencils from the museum store to keep score. Winners received Potter-related items that included a tote bag, a wand from the Broadway show, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and a 20th-anniversary set of Potter books (the exhibition and the programs are timed to the 20th anniversary of the publication in the United States of the first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”)
Pretzels and chips were provided and Potter-theme cocktails, including a Witch’s Tipple (white rum and pineapple juice) and a Crimson Cauldron (gin and pomegranate juice) were available at the cash bar.
The contest had 48 questions, most of which came from Pottermore, a fan site, and were posed by bearded Historical Society staff member Daniel Conroy (who wore a red and gold Gryffindor scarf). Participants gave one another high-fives when they thought they had the right answer and groaned when they didn’t.
“It’s a way to prove how big of a fan you really are,” said Peggy Nelling, who worked for a company that stages trivia contests and was there to help score that night’s event.
While millennials are the target audience, the passion for Potter can be shared across generations. Lynne Field of Manhattan threw her daughter, Caroline Field, her first Harry Potter-theme birthday party when she was in elementary school. Now 23 and living in Denver, she has returned home to join her mother for the contest. (They planned to attend the exhibition the next day.) Caroline Field said that she had never lost her love of the Potter world and had done extensive preparation for the contest.
“I did all the work,” she said, with a smile.
“And I bought the drinks,” added her mother.
Answers to the Trivia Questions
- Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore
- July 31, 1980
- The Hog’s Head