When I heard the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) was launching a special exhibit on Sherlock Holmes last fall, I knew I had to go. I grew up reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries and have watched a number of the screen versions. For those of us who are Holmes fans, we mentally like to put ourselves in his shoes, thinking we could use our powers of observations to solve crimes.
Hubby and I finally had a chance to go yesterday and the exhibit was worth wading through the crowds of hockey fans at Cossetta’s for lunch and waiting for parking at MNHS. (There was a Minnesota Wild game at the Xcel Energy Center, which is just down the road from the Minnesota History Center.)
The exhibit is in a dimly-lit area meant to convey Holmes’s Victorian England. It opens with a large, grey wall with a variety of images and sayings related to the stories. My husband’s new favorite saying is on the wall: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Words to live by in this internet age, where people have hair-trigger reactions to half-comprehended information they found online (info that may have been written by artificial intelligence – what would Sherlock have thought of that?).
Also within the opening area of the exhibit, a large screen plays a welcome message from Arthur Conan Doyle’s great-nephew, Richard Doyle.
Once the introductions are made, a staff member of MNHS hands visitors a little booklet and explains that there is a crime to be solved as you move through the exhibit, which starts with the history of how Conan Doyle created Holmes. I was fascinated by seeing letters and writing drafts by the author.
As I looked at the letters, I was struck by how there were no cross-outs or mistakes. One letter on exhibit (not the one shown above) showed a single, neat insertion of a forgotten word — that was it. I can’t write a handwritten page of anything without making several mistakes.
When it came to the working manuscript pages, there were several additions and cross-outs, but not as many as I would have expected. He was obviously a meticulous and thoughtful writer.
Once we were through the portion of the exhibit that provided the history of the author and Holmes, we entered the “train station,” where we treated to the history of the new inventions and scientific advances of the Victorian era, as well as the history of London at the time. There was a map on the wall that showed how the city was divided by color into various areas by the amount of wealth people had. The poorest areas were denoted by the color black; the wealthiest by the color red. I was struck by how this practice continued on this side of the Pond, only race was the primary focus of red-lining here.
During our time in the train station, there were a number of areas we needed to stop in order to get stamps for our little book. Each area, Optics & Lenses, Botany, Cosmetics, Telegraph, Ballistics, and Scotland Yard, had black, metal boxes that were maybe 8-9 inches high that had a slot in the front and a button on the top. (As a former museum worker and exhibit builder, I noted that these boxes must have been fabricated specially for the exhibit and they can’t have been cheap. It takes years and quite a bit of money to build an exhibit of this magnitude, something smaller museums don’t usually have.)
To get a stamp, we had to insert a specific page in the book into the slot and push the button. Here is the result:
We also had to make a rubbing from a newspaper, which led to the next part of the exhibit.
As we left the train station, we entered an area that was set up as the living room of 221B Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes. (I think whoever created this part of the exhibit had a lot of fun with it, right down to the crumpled wad of paper by the fireplace.) This was also the setting of a scavenger hunt. We had to find a list of items that was provided in our booklet. There were two items we never could definitively identify — Mr. Baker’s Hat and Dr. Beecher’s Portrait, because there were several unidentified hats and portraits in the space.
After the scavenger hunt, we entered the crime scene, which was introduced through a recording on a victrola. Erik and I had an awful time understanding the recording. Another visitor helpfully handed me a typed transcription of it, but there was so much background noise from other visitors and a father reading it to his child that I could not concentrate enough to make any sense of what I was reading.
We did our best to gather the clues and base our deductions on the evidence provided. It was a challenge, with the result ending as most Sherlock Holmes stories do — with Holmes having more background information than is presented to the reader. Nevertheless, the crime scene part of the exhibit gave our brains a good workout.
The end of the exhibit presented the ways in which Sherlock Holmes has inspired many other adaptations and products. I would have loved to have gotten the Sherlock Holmes Writing Set that was part of the exhibit. It had invisible ink!
I was also pleased to see that the exhibit featured props from two of the screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. One case had items from the 2009 Robert Downey, Jr. version; the other had items from Sherlock, the Benedict Cumberbatch adaptation. This latter version is, so far, my favorite adaptation because of the way the writers updated the stories to take modern technology, like cellphones, into account.
The exhibit concluded with another message from Richard Doyle.
Erik and I discovered we were among the few people left in the exhibit hall. We’d gotten so caught up that we didn’t realize the place was emptying out.
This was an excellent exhibit for how it engaged visitors, most of whom were reading closely and taking part in the crime-solving activities. MNHS provided labels in Spanish as well as English, thus making the exhibit more accessible. For those of us with aging eyes and bifocals, the font size on some of the exhibit labels could have been larger and more clear.
There was one bit of information that needed more clarity. In the section of the exhibit that talks about Dr. Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, there are two paintings illustrating gunshot wounds by Sir Charles Bell, but there is no explanation as to who Sir Charles is in relation to Dr. Joseph, even though they have the same last names. When we asked the MNHS staff on duty at the exhibit about this, they could not provide an answer, even after consulting what appeared to be a very extensive written tour guide.
These are pretty minor criticisms of an exhibit that took a tremendous amount of work and was so masterfully executed. And fun, to boot!
If you’d like to take part in the Sherlock Holmes exhibit, make haste. It ends April 2, 2023. For more information and to get tickets, visit https://www.mnhs.org/historycenter/activities/museum/sherlock.