The ‘Harry Potter Question’ and the ‘Fictional Palimpsest’ Solution

Well dear readers, it’s been a while. Since my last post I have completed, submitted and defended my dissertation (passed!) and been happily working with the academic crowdsourcing organization called Zooniverse in Oxford. But more on all of that another time. Today’s post is dedicated to a very exciting announcement made today by Christ Church College, Oxford, the place where I spent my visiting year abroad (nearly a decade ago)!

As an alum (of sorts) I recently had the hono(u)r of sitting in on a focus group, at Christ Church, dedicated to what can simply be termed the ‘Harry Potter question’. What do we do about the fact that the so many visitors to the college want to make contact with the magical world of J.K. Rowling’s acclaimed children’s books, and the films that helped bring them to life, rather than contemplating, say, St Frideswide’s legacy; Cardinal Wolsey’s dramatic rise and fall; Henry VIII’s appropriation of the college or Charles I’s use of the Deanery as his temporary palace in 1645, and the Great Hall as the site of his Parliament?

Almost every single participant in the focus group reported the experience of bringing a young child into the Great Hall, preparing to tell them of all the kings and queens and prime ministers that have graced the college over the centuries, only to be asked ‘Where are the candles?’ or told that the ‘ceiling is all wrong’? How many of us had been scorned by the same children, when we tried to point out the funny portrait of John Locke in what, I swear, is his bathrobe?

As anyone who knows me or my work can vouch, I am an advocate for the historical legacies of places and institutions, and sensitive to the ways in which the past exerts itself upon the present. Yet I am also a lover of fiction, including children’s literature, and so, in the course of the heated focus group convened to discuss the Harry Potter question, I advocated for a middle ground–a compromise–one that simultaneously acknowledges the eight hundred years’ worth of history of Christ Church, while also embracing the almost all-consuming power of J.K Rowling’s imaginative world.

That compromise is twofold, and, I am delighted to say, has been accepted! First, Christ Church will commission a new audio guide for visitors with which they can take a self-guided tour of the college–roaming more freely than they currently can–but still without stepping on the grass in Tom Quad. Secondly, and most importantly, the College has decided to gently remodel the Great Hall, which features in the first two Harry Potter films (directed by Chris Columbus), and which is thus a central draw for visitors, despite the creation of a whole Harry Potter universe at Warner Brother Studios in London.

Using cutting-edge technology, the college will install approximately one thousand ‘floating’ electronic candles which will hover over diners in the great hall. The candles will actually be small hovering drones with eco-friendly flickering bulbs. Designers of the technology will be nominated after an open call.

As for getting the ceiling to transform into an exact replica of the sky above, that’s currently out of the reach of the college’s budget, and it is not clear whether the ancient ceiling could actually be altered in any way (e.g by staging a series of mirrors to capture and reflect the sky). Because the candle-drones do not alter the fabric of the building itself, the project meets the stringent code that protects listed buildings.

It is hoped that these planned changes will satisfy the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the college each year, and meet with the general approval of fans and history buffs alike.

It was an absolute delight to be involved in the Harry Potter question focus group, and to have my proposal for the ‘fictional palimpsest’ accepted. This term has been on my mind for years, ever since the child of a friend asked in wonderment about the ‘all wrong’ ceiling. By fictional palimpsest I mean fictions that come to erase or overwrite other historical realities, often because their emotional force is so overwhelming, so compelling to our imaginations, that the historical thing becomes a vessel that encases and thus fleshes out or makes real the imagined thing. Fictional palimpsests give us the opportunity to explore make-believe environments and thus make them real. Christ Church College’s willingness to embrace this concept demonstrates how and why the great institution of Oxford University has weathered the centuries–by adapting and changing with the times, while remaining sensitive to the past.

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