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All About Sherlock Holmes

sherlock holmes exhibit

Sherlock Holmes was the perfect hero for his times. He embodied a sense of order and logic, as well as the latest advances in forensic science, at a time when the public’s confidence in the official police force had been shaken by horrific crimes such as the recent Jack the Ripper slayings. As Doctor Watson observed, Holmes was “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.”

From his modest beginnings in the 1887 issue of Beeton’s Christmas Annual, Sherlock Holmes has become a towering cultural presence and a publishing phenomenon. The detective’s adventures have been translated into more than eighty languages, including Inuit, Tamil and Yiddish. Special editions are also available in Morse code, Pitman shorthand and Pig Latin.

Though the era of gas lighting and hansom cabs has long passed, each generation of readers finds something new in these pages. The Sherlock Holmes stories remain fresh and original, and they can be read over and over again for the sheer joy of Conan Doyle’s writing. It is not that we have forgotten who killed Sir Charles Baskerville or who stole the Bruce-Partington Plans; we return to Baker Street to watch a genius at work. Once heard, the call is never forgotten: The footprints of a gigantic hound; the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. “Come, Watson, come. The game’s afoot.”

Sherlock Holmes in Popular Culture

“I hear of Sherlock everywhere,” the detective’s older brother, Mycroft, once remarked. Today, one hears of Sherlock Holmes in more places than ever before. Much like Tarzan, Robin Hood or Zorro, Sherlock Holmes has long since achieved an iconic status, familiar even to people who have never opened a book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Children in Zaire and Tibet recognize his likeness as easily as that of Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse. The image of the deerstalker hat and curved-stem Calabash pipe has become synonymous with the word “detective” throughout the world.

Even within Conan Doyle’s lifetime, Sherlock Holmes seemed to step off the printed page and take on a life of his own. The detective found his way onto the stage as early as 1893, a mere six years after his first appearance in print. He made his film debut in 1900, when cinema was in its infancy. Since then, Holmes has appeared in original movie and television adaptations in countries across the globe, including Russia, Poland, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The familiar hawk-nosed profile has also appeared on teapots, chess pieces, dinner plates, board games, T shirts, and chewing-gum packages—to name but a few. Hundreds of writers have followed in Conan Doyle’s footsteps and continued the detective’s adventures, writing “pastiches” that find Sherlock Holmes journeying to outer space, traveling through time, and teaming up with such figures varied as Sigmund Freud, Dracula, Albert Einstein and Harry Houdini.

More recently, the detective has begun to branch out into the worlds of computer software, video games and manga-style graphic novels. It is difficult to say what Conan Doyle would have thought of all of this, but Sherlock Holmes would likely have taken it all in stride. “It is, of course, a trifle,” he once remarked, “but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

Sherlock on Screen

“You would have made an actor,” remarks a character in The Sign of the Four, “and a rare one.”

Though Sherlock Holmes himself never “trod the boards” as an actor, he has been well represented in hundreds of stage, film, television and radio adaptations. Until recently, the role of Sherlock Holmes has been largely dominated by the performances of three exceptional actors, each of whom shaped the public’s perception of the detective for generations to come.

In 1899, a celebrated American stage actor named William Gillette began a run of some 1,300 performances in a play known simply as Sherlock Holmes. Gillette himself wrote the script, based on an earlier play by Conan Doyle. Over the course of more than three decades Gillette’s portrayal fixed the iconic image of the pipe-smoking, deerstalker-wearing sleuth in the popular imagination. Variations on a seemingly unremarkable line from the script—”Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow”—would be taken up by other performers for years to come.

Beginning in 1939, the British actor Basil Rathbone created an indelible impression in a series of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films, accompanied by Nigel Bruce’s affable if rather buffoonish characterization of Dr. Watson. The scripts often wandered into strange and unconventional territory, with Holmes battling Nazi saboteurs and Professor Moriarty falling to his death in film after film, but Rathbone’s sharp, elegant performance remained true to the original.

In 1984, Britain’s Granada Television launched a distinguished series of programs featuring Jeremy Brett in a moody, darkly brilliant re-imagining of the role. The series was noted for its lavish production and its efforts to adhere to the spirit of the original stories. Brett’s quirky, often high-strung performance marked a transition from the conventional, leading-man glamour of Gillette and Rathbone to the edgy, eccentric interpretations of the present day.

Sherlock: The Next Generation

As Sherlock Holmes’ fame stretches into a third century, the detective is enjoying a fresh wave of interest fuelled by a new movie franchise and by modern-day television adaptations on both sides of the Atlantic.

On the big screen, Robert Downey, Jr., stars in a fast-paced, action-oriented adaptation that presents a gritty, steam-punk vision of Victorian London. Jude Law plays a sturdy and capable Dr. Watson who is the perfect foil to Downey’s brainy and brawling Holmes.

On British television, the offbeat and wildly-original “Sherlock” stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as a modern Holmes and Watson in contemporary London. The series takes its inspiration from the deceptively simple notion that Holmes’ introduction to Watson—“How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”— could easily have taken place in the present day.

On American television, “Elementary” also takes modern slant, with Jonny Lee Miller as a present-day Sherlock Holmes who relocates to New York following a drug-fueled flameout. Working as a consultant to the New York Police Department, Holmes finds his bearings with the assistance of a female “sober companion” by the name of Dr. Watson played by Lucy Liu.

Sherlockian Fans

Somewhere, at this very moment, a group of Sherlock Holmes fans are gathering to discuss such matters as the true location of Dr. Watson’s war wound or the depth to which a sprig of parsley might sink in butter on a hot day. Sherlockians, as they call themselves, have been coming together for generations all across the world, from Saskatoon to Sendai, and even in such unlikely places as the Antarctic Peninsula and the Great Wall of China.

The Baker Street Irregulars is one of America’s leading Sherlockian organizations, founded in 1934 by the novelist and critic Christopher Morely whose state goal was “to perpetuate the myth that Sherlock Holmes is not a myth.” The first meeting was held in a back room of the “serviceable” Christ Cella’s chophouse in New York, a familiar haunt of speakeasy days, where the newly-minted Irregulars established a tradition of “disputation, confrontation, and dialectical hullabaloo” that continues to this day.

Holmes is always changing, always moving with the times, and always in tune with the latest advancements in culture and technology. According to Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson is the one fixed point in a changing age. And Watson? Well, who would have imagined in Conan Doyle’s day that Dr. Watson would be portrayed by a twenty-first century woman in New York City?

Some aspects of Holmes’ world will always remain constant. It’s clear that eccentric geniuses never go out of style. The logic, methodical approach, and scientific brilliance that enthralled his earliest readers are still a powerful part of his appeal today. With his keen insight and ability to see what others miss, Sherlock Holmes brings clarity to an often confusing world.

Conan Doyle’s vision, and the scientific knowledge that lay beneath it, continue to inspire today’s pioneers as they break new ground in the worlds of medicine and forensics. And who knows? Tomorrow’s innovators may be standing beside you at this moment, picking up a few tips from the great detective. As Holmes himself might have said, they are the beacons of the future, the bright seeds out of which will spring the wiser, better world of tomorrow.

Sherlock Holmes Exhibit

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes was developed by Exhibits Development Group and Geoffrey M. Curley + Associates in collaboration with the Conan Doyle Estate Limited, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of London.