By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Has every generation since 1887 envisioned a Sherlock Holmes that resembles what they see in the mirror? In the late 19th century, Holmes was a confirmed bachelor, too rational to be interested in any female — except, that is, for Mrs. Hudson, who took care of his needs by serving tea, introducing guests, and delivering messages. (Except for that correspondence stabbed to his mantle by someone with a jackknife…)
In the early 21st century, a new vision of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson emerges in the AO3 fan fiction website. Beloved of a new generation of Baker Street followers, who may be LBTQ+ or otherwise gendered, these pieces ship the characters in new directions, writing stories in which Holmes and Watson often are romantically engaged with each other or other members of the Holmes Canon, such as Holmes and Lestrade, Holmes and Moriarty, and so forth.
Now, fans new and old will get the chance to meet Sherlock Holmes, learn how he follows the clues, and take part in their own investigations, at the very interactive “Sherlock Holmes: The Exhibition,” hosted at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul starting Oct. 20. Artifacts, manuscripts, and other clues to the great detective and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — more than 100 of them from the U of M Libraries’ extensive Holmes-related collections — will be available for scrutiny.
Magnifying glass, optional.
The game’s afoot
Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never imagined this future for his fictional detective.
Or is he? Fictional, that is?
Sometimes in talking with Timothy Johnson, E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries, the distinction blurs a bit. When he recounts his tales of Sherlockania, Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty at times seem as alive as the Sherlock aficionados who belong to the New York City–based Baker Street Irregulars, our Norwegian Explorers in the Upper Midwest, the Bootmakers of Toronto, or among the 2,000-plus fans in Japan.
Johnson is an admirer of the late John Bennett Shaw, the largest private collector of Sherlockania in North America. “Shaw had the collecting sensibility of a vacuum cleaner,” Johnson says. Beer glasses, board games, marionettes, walking sticks, T-shirts — all sorts of kitsch and caboodle — along with the more serious memorabilia of manuscripts and first editions of published works were among his generous donation to the Sherlock Holmes Collections.
Because of the generosity of Shaw and other donors, the U of M’s is the largest collection of Sherlockania in the world.
Shaw is an example of the sort of Sherlock scion who conveyed enthusiasm, and, at times, downright fervor, for the brilliant detective. Sherlock got his start in England, traveled the European continent, as well as to North America, and finally marched into the role of popular culture hero.
In the first decades after Sherlock emerged on the scene, he was immortalized by illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele, actor William Gillette, and radio playwright Edith Meiser. Sherlockian societies mushroomed following the establishment of the Baker Street Irregulars by then-noted intellectual Christopher Morley in 1934.
More recently, actors Robert Downey Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch (a distant relative of Conan Doyle) have portrayed Holmes in movies and television. In addition, the detective work of a previously subrosa teenage sister, Enola Holmes, has spun off into books and films. In our multimedia age, you need not subscribe to the Canon of Sherlock Holmes’ books to be an enthusiast of his deductive reasoning.
Sherlock comes Holmes
“Sherlock Holmes: The Exhibition” was organized by a St. Paul company and, starting at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, has been on the road since 2013. “Finally, in a way, it’s coming home,” says Johnson, who notes the exhibition has traveled around the United States and to Australia, primarily to science-oriented museums.
In the version (slightly smaller due to the size of display spaces) that opens in St. Paul this month, viewers will be immersed in the Victorian era of scientific observation, built with the collaboration of Minnesota experts on crime. “I so appreciate the Minnesota Historical Society playing host,” Johnson adds. In the exhibition, visitors will see about 120 items on loan from the U of M Libraries. In addition, the Historical Society is sharing its auditorium with Sherlock enthusiasts for a free mini-conference on Oct. 22. (See sidebar)
Opening weekend aligns with days off school for MEA, so Johnson hopes many families will come. Perhaps field trips will be organized during school days. “I’m excited about the opportunity for all the schoolchildren to learn about Holmes,” Johnson says, “and to work through the mystery” that is integral to the exhibitions. He expects that many adult Sherlockians, including many of his friends from the Midwest and beyond, will come to Minnesota to see the show.
While Johnson eagerly anticipates the exhibition’s appearance in the Twin Cities in fall through spring 2023, it’s 2024 that really gets him excited. That will be the 50th year since the Sherlock Holmes collections were established at the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections. Expect surprises, as Sherlock and Watson, in all their guises, are unleashed for those celebrations.