In its latest exhibit, "Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic Mystery," the Mel Fisher Maritime History Museum explores the historical roots of a modern-day sensation with an educational combination of magic, mystery and maritime archaeology.
Visitors to one of Key West's most popular museums can retrace the young wizard's steps through the intriguing labyrinth of Diagon Alley, with its apothecary shop, healing herbs, spellbinding potions, screaming roots of mandrake plants, protective poison cups, bezoar stones, wands and other weapons of wizardry.
"As readers of the books know, Diagon Alley is where Hagrid takes Harry to get all his supplies for Hogwart's School," said museum Executive Director Melissa Kendrick. "We're re-creating that concept of old-time shopping stalls in London, where we'll demonstrate our Renaissance collection and the truth behind the stories."
Upon entering the second-floor gallery, visitors learn that they, like Harry, have been accepted into Hogwart's school of wizardry and must meander the stalls of Diagon Alley to find a list of "school" supplies that include such items as a wand, a pointed hat, spell books, a cauldron and other items.
Much of the magic in J.K. Rowling's best-selling series is rooted in history and the emerging science of the 1500s. The museum's rare artifacts bridge the gap between truth and fiction and give visitors an eye-opening glimpse into the "real" world of Harry Potter, where the roots of mandrake plants screamed when pulled, dittany herbs were used to cure wounds and Harry used a bezoar stone to save his friend's life from lethal poison.
Mel Fisher's divers recovered authentic bezoar stones from the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, as well as a golden goblet with an ornate gold wire cage at its bottom that would have held a bezoar stone to neutralize any poison an enemy had slipped into a drink.
Modern science has discovered that bezoar stones, which are hardened balls of compacted hair found in animals' stomachs, do, in fact, neutralize arsenic, a popular poison during the tumultuous Renaissance era.
"Our bezoar stones and poison cup are really rare, and actually kind of scary," Kendrick said. "They're the star of the show in this exhibit and I'm hoping to bring it all together through the magic of Harry Potter that has swept the world."
The exhibit also includes Renaissance swords, a "sniffing station" of dittany and other healing herbs and a "garden" of mandrakes with human-looking roots that "scream" when pulled.
"How cool is it that kids today know about these things by reading the Harry Potter books and seeing the movies, and now they can see the real things here at the museum?" Kendrick said. "Kids and adults are really loving it."
A few textual placards for the new exhibit were provided by the National Library of Medicine as part of a touring exhibit on Renaissance Science, Magic & Medicine. But the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum's tangible artifacts, recovered after 350 years on the ocean floor, bring history to life -- and meaning to magic.
From Renaissance-era surgical tools to the golden poison cup, history combines with magic.
"For fans of the books, there are a thousand things in the exhibit that they're going to catch," Kendrick said.
The exhibit will be on display for a limited time.
For more information, visit www.melfisher.org or call 305-294-2633. The museum is located at 200 Greene St., Key West.