Sherlock Holmes

A Victorian pocket watch is on display at the Museum of London. A fairly typical museum object, it often would not merit a second glance from passing visitors. Here, though, they are invited to look closer, to inspect the watch in greater detail and discover that there are numbers scratched into the case. What can this tell us about the sort of person that owned the watch?

According to Sherlock Holmes, in The Sign of Four,

"It is very customary for pawnbrokers in England, when they take a watch, to scratch the numbers of the ticket with a pin-point upon the inside of the case. It is more handy than a label as there is no risk of the number being lost or transposed. There are no less than four such numbers visible to my lens on the inside of this case. Inference – that your brother was often at low water. Secondary inference – that he had occasional bursts of prosperity, or he could not have redeemed the pledge."[1]

Equipped with this knowledge, the museum visitor can understand far more from the watch on close inspection than would superficially have appeared possible.

Shared narrative machinery

Tony Bennett, in The Birth of the Museum, describes a museum exhibition as ‘a narrative machinery with very similar properties’ to a detective story. Borrowing a term used by Thomas Huxley to describe the insights of Voltaire’s Zadig, Bennett describes both fictional detectives and museum curators as ‘backtellers’, constructing ‘retrospective prophecies’ of past events from the materials left behind. Sherlock Holmes was, as Bennett describes, ‘the most influential “backteller” of them all.’[2]

‘Like the palaeontologist,’ Bennett writes, ‘the detective must reconstruct a past event – the crime – on the basis of its remnants; and, just as for the palaeontologist, bones may well be “all that remains” for this purpose.’[3] Just as Holmes’ ability to follow the clues in material objects delineates the lives of the people who used them, a museum also backtells narratives of people and society through their material culture.

The museum and the Baker Street detective make natural bedfellows, so their coming together in an exhibition like the Museum of London’s Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die seems entirely appropriate.

Museum visitors as Watson

The final third of the exhibition, focusing on what the Holmes stories can tell us about Victorian society, its people and innovations, makes great use of encouraging the visitor to play Watson. The visitor’s attention is drawn to seemingly insignificant elements of an object that hide fascinating stories. An unremarkable looking boot is revealed to leave a footprint with a tiny notch in the heel. This in turn could tell the keen eyed detective that the boot is actually made to attach to an ice skate, as x-rays of the object reveal.

In fact, Holmes’ ‘Science of Deduction’ could be seen as anticipating by almost a century the kind of artefact study models proposed by material culture theorists and museologists in the 1970s and 80s. The likes of Edward McClung Fleming[4], Jules Prown[5], and Robert Elliot [6] suggested that objects needed to be understood in a series of ever widening contexts in order for them to backtell the most complete associated narrative. In Elliot’s system this is a progression from ‘observable data’ – the object’s construction, function and condition – through ‘comparative data’ – the object alongside others of similar manufacture or period – to ‘supplementary data’ – such as any written source on the subject.

In the festive Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, a similar method is used to backtell a character from his hat (and, yes, a similar hat appears in the Museum of London exhibition). While Watson is able to gather a great deal of observable data from the hat (‘hard and much the worse for wear’, with discoloured lining, missing elastic and an attempt to cover discolouration with ink), he gets no further. It requires Holmes’ facility with comparative and supplementary data to reveal that, for example, the hat being three years out of fashion and worse for wear implies a man who had wealth but lost it.[7]

Although presented as an ideal in theory, in practice museum curators and visitors simply do not have the time to apply these in depth studies to a wide variety of objects. By tying such a style of study to the popular fiction of the ‘Science of Deduction’, however, the Museum of London succeeds in making its visitors do just that.

A lack of dynamic geography

This is not to say that the rest of the exhibition is such a success. The central section, ostensibly covering ‘Holmes’ London’, is a series of prints, photographs and paintings of the city. Here there is a traditional, conservative hang, with the images grouped in broad themes like ‘London Fog’, many with only a loose connection to the Holmes stories. Lacking the playful invitation to the viewer to play detective, look closer and discover, these come across as flat and unengaging. The only set of images in this gallery that offered clues for further investigation, a wall of postcards in which one had a connection to Dartmoor and Holmes’ most famous adventure, stimulated far greater levels of visitor engagement and interaction than works of more traditional artistic merit.

Grouping the pictures by theme, regardless of location, also robs them of any sense of the dynamic urban geography through which the detective expertly navigates. A trio of videos and maps tracing the stories’ journeys on the modern London streets do this far more successfully and engagingly than the galleries that follow. The style of these video installations consciously apes the shooting and editing style of the BBC’s current 21st century reimagining of the character, pointing to why we are getting this exhibition right now. For all that he is ‘the man who will never die’, Holmes has never been more popular, nor more current.

Backtelling from Cumberbatch's coat

The finely tailored coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch on screen is highlighted as one of the exhibition’s star objects, on a par with Doyle’s original draft manuscripts. The problem with this is that the coat is simply dropped, seemingly at random, into the rest of the display about Holmes’ Victorian world. It has not been used to backtell a narrative of its own; a story that explores readers wearing black armbands after the character’s ‘death’ in The Final Problem, viewers trying to buy an exact version of this same coat, and the birth of what would today be called fandom.

There are hints throughout that the display will explore Holmes’ status in the cultural imagination and the way that he developed a life of his own beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s control (rare film footage of Doyle lamenting receiving letters from women offering their services as Holmes’ house-and-bee-keeper is a highlight). However, the exhibition ends abruptly without developing this theme.

Recent weeks have seen the media spotlight turn to a Selkirk pop-up exhibition’s discovery of a ‘lost’ Sherlock Holmes story, an imagined interview with the great detective that has dubiously been attributed to Doyle himself. It’s a story that brings up questions of authorship, canonicity, and the possibility of responding to a fictional character a real person. The popularity of stories like this or the Baker Street Sherlock Holmes Museum (the literary house museum is a long established concept, but a meta-museum purporting to be the home of character, not creator, is almost unique) suggest a Holmes narrative not present at the Museum of London.

The exhibition is appealingly peppered with film clips from screen adaptations of every era, from Gillette to Downey, but stays solidly within the realm of the faithful and canonical. The more radical remixes of Nicholas Meyer’s literary fan-fiction The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Hugh Laurie’s curmudgeonly medical detective House M.D. or animated rodent Holmes, Basil the Great Mouse Detective, would better follow Cumberbatch’s coat in telling a story of the ability to re-invent the detective for different times and audiences.

Ultimately, therefore, when it comes to backtelling Victorian society from Sherlock Holmes stories, the exhibition is an impressive success. In not using reactions to and representations of the character to backtell a story of ‘the man who never lived and will never die’, however, it fails to fulfil the promise of its title.

Dr Jack Gann was a PhD research student with LCVS studying the representation of the Victorians in contemporary museums. He also coordinated blogs for LCVS. Follow him on twitter – @jackrgann – for more on Victorians, museums, popular culture, and the occasional recipe.

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, (London: Headline Review, 2006), p. 9

[2] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum, (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 177

[3] Bennett, p. 178

[4] E. McClung Fleming, ‘Artifact study: a proposed model’, Winterthur Portfolio 9 (1973), pp. 153-73

[5] Jules Prown, ‘Mind in matter: an introduction to material culture theory and method’, Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982), pp. 1-19

[6] Robert Elliot et al., ‘Towards a material history methodology’, Material History Bulletin 22 (1982), pp. 31-40

[7] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, (London: Penguin Classic, 2007), pp. 182-4

Image from The British Library (used in accordance with copyright laws and permitted usage)

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