Just before the entrance to the final room of the Museum Of London’s superbly comprehensive Sherlock Holmes exhibition, three objects – a deerstalker hat, a calabash pipe, and a magnifying glass – are mounted on a white wall. In between those three objects is blank space, room enough for someone to duck in, pose in profile, and momentarily occupy the silhouette of the great detective. It’s a neat distillation of Sherlock Holmes’ iconic (and non-literary, as fans will happily tell you) popular image, but also tells us something about the nature of the fandom that surrounds him. In between Holmes’ fixed compass points – hat, pipe and glass; or deductions, Watson and London – is a vessel into which we can pour ourselves and our interpretations.
This exhibition is testament how many people have done exactly that over the last one hundred and thirty years. In Doyle’s words (which can be heard in the exhibition’s copy of the only known filmed interview with the author) the character grew in his lifetime from a “small seed” to a “monstrous growth”. If he could only see him now.
As author Sam Leith elegantly puts it here, the character of Sherlock Holmes “proved porous to the imaginations of others”. That porosity, according to Mark Gatiss (a writer jointly responsible for today’s most adored iteration of the character), is the secret to Holmes’ enduring popularity. Speaking to BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking, Gatiss explained “It’s probably because of the endless fascination with a person who didn’t exist. In that foggy gap, we can project all kinds of things. There’s always this sort of gap in which we can project our own versions, and endlessly reinvent them”.
It’s perhaps bizarre to enthuse about gaps and blank space when discussing an exhibition so crammed with artefacts. As well as giving a flavour of the character’s reinventions across literature and the stage, TV and film, The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die devotes rooms to evoking Holmes’ cultural context.
One such, entitled ‘The Many Sides Of Sherlock Holmes’ showcases Victorian and Edwardian paraphernalia such as that mentioned in Doyle’s short stories, the tools of forensic science’s early days, and displays annotating the detective’s deductive process from boot-prints to cigarette ash analysis (“Enter the mind of Sherlock Holmes”, the trailer promises. Fans won’t leave disappointed). There are disguises and costumes – from a deerstalker and cape to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Derek Rose dressing gown and renowned Belstaff coat – the obligatory violin, cocaine works, putty noses, and the door to 221b Baker Street. Talk about a mind palace.
That’s all next door to objects from Doyle’s life, early manuscripts, publications, a postcard written to his son, the cigarette case he presented to illustrator Sidney Paget, and – thrillingly – the notebook containing his first scribblings of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson characters (who then went by the names J Sherringford Holmes and Ormond Sacker) for A Study In Scarlet. A never-displayed-before-in-the-UK oil portrait of Doyle by Paget, whose original Holmes illustrations are a particular highlight for fans of the stories here, presides over one wall.
After the fun of entering through a hidden bookcase door, past banks of screens featuring all eras of screen Holmeses from Rathbone to Robert Downey Junior and beyond, via rare cinema posters is a winding series of displays depicting Doyle’s contemporary London, which is treated as a third main character by the curators here, and both documented in forensic detail via maps and lithographs, and expressively conjured up in paintings by Monet, John Crowther and more. Here’s where the inextricable confluence between subject and location – a Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum Of London – really comes in to its own. They’ve thought of everything to contrive a sense of the salubrious yet crime-filled London of Doyle’s stories. An entire wall, even, is devoted to pea-soup fog.
The exhibition even begins before you get inside. Decorating the exterior walls of the museum are pictograms from The Adventure Of The Dancing Men (solve the code to find out what they say), as well as the full text of that story curving around the rotunda at the entrance to the museum. The shop too, won’t disappoint Holmes fans, especially those with wads of spare cash who fancy picking up a pricy dressing gown or flat cap. (This is almost certain to be the only exhibition you’ll ever attend with its own tie-in Tweed.)
Mythical, immortal, and endlessly reinvented, the world’s most famous literary detective now has a treasure trove of carefully collected objects and displays to rival his own peerlessly stuffed mind. Doyle fans certainly won’t want to miss it.
Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die opened at the Museum of London on Friday 17 October 2014 and runs until Sunday 12 April 2015.
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