Tuesday 4 November 2014

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Originally uploaded on 30 October 2014 and reloaded today following a technical glitch

'Sherlock Holmes: the Man Who Never Lived and Who Will Never Die' is the clumsy title of an exhibition currently attracting large crowds to the Museum of London.

I went there with my son, a Conan Doyle enthusiast, as a half-term treat.

Highlights? Some beautiful photographs by the great Alvin Langdon Coburn, the flimsy link being that they portray London in hazy conditions, and that fog is associated with Holmes's city (wrongly, as it seldom features in the stories). There was also Benedict Cumberbatch's overcoat from the telly - a lovely thing, but not worth paying twelve quid to see.

Lowlights? Almost everything else.

The manuscripts in the first room were all inexplicably displayed flat in glass cases at hip height, top-lit by powerful halogen bulbs. Any attempt to read them cast a immediate black shadow, plunging the page on display into pitch darkness. The rest of the time the brilliant bulbs reflected, dazzlingly, off the glass. Awful. I wanted to see - and had paid to see, but was unable to see - Poe's manuscript of the Dupin story that inspired Conan Doyle to create Holmes. Impossible to do so, and the same problem applied to all the manuscript material gathered in that first room. A word to the designer: always display manuscripts at a reading angle, at a reasonable height, and think about your lighting. I mean. Jesus.

There followed a series of displays loosely related to Conan Doyle's most celebrated creation. All the labels were displayed at a height that might just suit wheelchair users (fair enough) and small children (which is daft because small children don't read labels - they just want to press buttons and muck about). This meant that after twenty minutes of bending and crouching and peering I was exhausted and irritable. 

There was a constant, over-audible tape loop of television and film versions of Holmes's adventures, random in order and uneven in quality. It was like being trapped in the home of a teenage channel-hopper with an attention deficit disorder. Cabinets displayed selections of old telephones, varieties of pince-nez (because 'they feature several times in the stories'), something on cryptography (and nul points to whoever had the dim idea of attaching huge 'dancing men' figures rendered in shocking pink Keith Haring-style to the outside of Powell and Moya's building); disguises, drugs, and so on. 

There was nothing about the world-wide popularity of Holmes and Watson (and it would have been very interesting to see/hear what other cultures have done with the characters); the extraordinary industrial output of Holmesian fan fiction; the influence of Conan Doyle on later authors and the detective genre. What came as a great surprise was the absence of disparaging and condescending references to Holmes's snobbishness, racism, sexism, rudeness to dwarves and misogyny, 'typical, alas, of conuslting detectives of his age and class at the time'. He got off lightly.

The eye-wateringly over-priced hardback catalogue was part of a depressing range of crappy gifts for sale in the museum foyer - the kind of tat you might expect to pick up in Camden Town or Carnaby Street, or at the awful Sherlock Holmes 'experience' in Baker Street.

We left after half an hour and explored the rest of the museum (which is excellent, and free). For the price of our two tickets we could have bought all the brilliant Granada Television productions of the entire Holmes canon on DVD, starring the peerless Jeremy Brett. You should consider doing just that.

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