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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Film, archive or art? Who cares- it's Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

A few months ago we were, well, a little critical of the Museum of London and their penchant for exhibitions that tie in with recent television and film releases (see: this article from November). In fact this question of films, promotion and temporary exhibitions has been picked up elsewhere, including a feature in January's Museums Journal. We wondered whether all these PR driven, crowd pleasing, Hollywood inspired displays were a good enticement or an indication of the decreasing importance of collections. Well, a Christmas visit to MoL's Sherlock Holmes exhibition set us right- it is possible to build something which lures in film fans and also shows off your objects.

Regardless of this debate, I would have gone to see this exhibition anyway. I mean- who doesn't love Sherlock Holmes? Admittedly when most people say this they mean Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Junior - but who can blame them. It occurred to me as I walked through the party trick door that MoL loves so much- Sherlock Holmes is not a real person. How are they going to pull off an exhibition about a fictional persona? Essentially the MoL had three ways they could go with this- a British Library style archival exhibition with original manuscripts, a media-dense exploration of the major themes and historical context of the works, or to focus on London as an essential character in Conan Doyle's stories. Eureka! thought the curators, we shall do all three.
Sherlock Holmes does very much feel like several exhibitions stuck together, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It begins with exactly what most visitors expect as they walk through the bookcase- lots of videos and film posters creating a cacophony of sights and sounds of Sherlock over the past 150 years. But this is no film exhibition, before you know it...BAM! We are getting archival up in here bitch. Look at these manuscripts, original prints of the Strand Magazine, even some Edgar Allan Poe. Personally I enjoyed the video clip of Conan Doyle himself (although did any one else notice how this was introduced as an interview about his close connections with the spiritual world?! Guess we are just skipping over that one...)

If you only briefly looked at the faded pages of early Sherlock, you may well have been equally surprised to find yourself in the next section - oh its an art exhibition! Personally I like this bit- the Sherlock Holmes stories have been inspired for students of London and undoubtedly the metropolis itself shapes the mysteries even more than the great detective himself. Plus hey, we are in the Museum of London and I'm sure they have infinite amounts of London based photographs, etchings, paintings, and whatnots they are dying to get out of the store. So go on then, relish it art curators. You put up all those Victorian photos of foggy London-town.

The last portion of the exhibition is probably what most people had in mind when they bought a ticket- a dense display about Sherlock as a character featuring historical objects related to the stories plus film props (swoon, Benedict's coat and all). And why not- when it comes the Victorian London I imagine MoL is bursting at the seems with stuff for people to see. Clay pipes, medicine chests, carriage models, boots, guns- you name it. Personally I found the displays around the outside which looked at the development of fingerprinting, phrenology, iris-matching, and all other fodder for Sherlockian detective work fascinating. It's so much stuff in one tiny space you probably need at least 2 times around to see it all.

Is this a good exhibition- overall, yes. It's certainly feels like several exhibitions rolled together, but maybe that's necessary when addressing a topic that people think about in so many different ways. MoL seems to be trying to please everyone in their relatively small exhibition space, and to that I say, hats off to them. When faced with the challenge of creating an exhibition about a fictional detective, the museum turned to their collections to provide the solution. Although slightly disjointed, Sherlock Holmes is well worth a visit for lovers of the original stories, its recent incarnations or just the city of London.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die is on at the Museum of London until the 12th of April. 

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