By early morning four-wheeler to the Museum of London, for the media preview of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die, the museum’s major exhibition of all things Sherlockian with opens tomorrow (17th). You might think, given the continuing appetite for Holmes, this would be a shoo-in as a blockbuster event. But, as lead curator Alex Werner has said: ‘We found ourselves having to think hard about how you create an exhibition about a fictional character.’
That sentiment alone will raise some hackles. Werner does not subscribe to playing ‘The Great Game’, popular with many Sherlock Holmes societies around the world, in which all pretend that Watson, not Conan Doyle, wrote the stories and that Holmes was flesh and blood (albeit capable of Whovian-like regeneration). So you won’t find a reproduction of the sitting room at 212b Baker St, like the one at the Northumberland Arms near Charing Cross, complete with Persian slipper, violin and a copy of Bradshaw, claiming this was where Holmes tackled his three-pipe problems. Instead, the curators have assembled cabinets of the sort of artefacts Holmes might have come into contact with, without claiming the great man actually handled them (and so you will find an 18th century violin, a selection of service revolvers of the sort Watson and Holmes might have carried, and a case of drug paraphernalia of the correct period).
Then there is question of which Holmes do you concentrate on when creating a show about the world’s only Consulting Detective? There will be some visitors who will be disappointed to find this is not a Cumberfest, although he does appear on screens and his Belstaff ‘Milford’ coat and his dressing gown (originally used by Conan Doyle to suggest Holmes’ “bohemian” qualities) are on display. But it is not a celebration of the BBC version of the Great Detective. In fact, nearly all the Holmes are represented, from the well-known (Brett, Cumberbatch, Rathbone) to the half-remembered (Ian Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Richard Roxburgh), the point being to demonstrate that no matter how many times he is re-imagined, re-located and re-booted, the immutable essence of Holmes lies within Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels (rare examples of which are on display under glass). And, of course, it lies with the city where Holmes lived and so often worked.
This being the Museum of London it should come as no surprise that a large part of the show concentrates on the city that fed both Holmes and Conan Doyle, and it is very effective at conjuring up the gaslit, fog-bound streets that the author wrote about. Maps show Holmes and Watson’s movements about the city in several of the tales, and contemporary paintings of a hansom cab stand, the Strand, Piccadilly and “The Bayswater Omnibus” – shown above, as mentioned in The Adventure of the Missing Three Quarter – give visual life to the architectural and cultural backdrop to many of the stories.
So Werner and his team have done an exemplary job of touching all the Holmes bases while maintaining a focus on the city that helped gave life to this remarkably resilient creation. Criticisms? Yes. Not enough Watson. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
* Sherlock: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die” costs £12/£10 concessions (020 7001 9844, museumoflondon.org.uk/sherlock).