I am happy to announce that a new display is now open for viewing in the Study in Sherlock exhibition at Portsmouth Museum!*
I have blogged before about my work with the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest including a CSI event and the Arthur and George exhibition. These side projects to my thesis are in collaboration with Portsmouth City Council to give me professional training and for me to bring new (or reveal lost) meaning to the collection through my research. A few months ago I found a very exciting set of 6 postcards in the collection: they are Sherlock Holmes postcards that were published by The Strand Magazine in 1903 as part of the release of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. These cards, I have been told, are incredibly rare – to find one is amazing, but all 6?!
That the cards were in the collection was not a huge surprise to me. Richard Lancelyn Green was a dedicated collector and there are many things in the collection that are one of a kind or one of a few in the world. The problem is that with such a big collection and with very little cataloguing from Richard, some of the significance of these fantastic objects, books, etc. were lost with Richard when he died. This is why the postcard find was so amazing for me – not because I had found something new, but because I had uncovered something lost.
These postcards will form the basis of a thesis chapter but I also felt it important to let the public see them too – they are too exciting to keep to myself! So when I was asked to curate a new display for Portsmouth Museum, I very quickly decided to base it on the history of Sherlock Holmes fandom, which would enable me to include these postcards, show off my research on fandom pre-1930 and include some amazing material on fandom that dates all the way through to 2004. These include photos of Alan Rickman as Sherlock Holmes in a 1976 stage show; as well as a bust of Jeremy Brett that looks uncannily like Benedict Cumberbatch, and a manuscript of Vincent Starrett’s ‘221B’, signed by the author and dedicated to George Steele Seymour (1942).
My biggest challenge came when deciding how to include the most recent forms of fandom. How do you relay fanfic, fanart, slash, cross-over, forums, and all the other wonderful ways Holmes fans interact in the age of the internet, to a museum audience?Internet fanfic in particular is difficult to transfer into a museum in an interesting way without costly technology. The decision I made was to approach a few artists to ask them to donate a piece of their work for the display. I couldn’t include or represent all that I would have liked to, however, I am so happy with the pieces that were donated. They show a fantastic cross-section of fanart: a BBC Sherlock piece called ‘221 Tea’ by Jackie Goodrum (Enerjax); a Canon illustration of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ by Kayla Kinoo, and a comic strip that hints at a one true pairing between Holmes and Watson called ‘I Like Many Things’ by Basil Chap.
The number one lesson I learned from the experience of curating a display: it’s far more difficult than it looks! I thought choosing the objects would be the most difficult part, but it wasn’t. If anything, it was the easiest. With such a vast and varied collection, finding stuff you want to display is easy; it’s cutting things out that proves difficult. Some objects were too big – there was a fantastic model ship from the Jeremy Brett TV series that I wanted to put in, but it was HUGE and would have taken up half the case on its own. Another was (we think) the death mask of Conan Doyle – a fantastic memorial piece, but it didn’t fit the theme of the case and was proving difficult to display (lying flat it was hard to see, standing it up endangered the mask). It’s these kinds of obstacles that museum staff face on a daily basis. When I was arranging the display board for the case I spent 2 hours trying to get everything to fit (while avoiding screw holes, keeping like with like, and making odd-shaped materials fit). It was so frustrating that I eventually exclaimed to a colleague ‘this is harder than a PhD!’ (She asked for that in writing!)
My biggest surprise was how time-consuming it is. Mounting the material alone took 2 days. Of course, I wasn’t as fast working as my colleagues would have been, but it still takes a long time. This was only one case, the museum staff have to do the same for entire galleries. I have a new found respect for the work that they do – researching the objects for the descriptions, editing, preserving, designing, and organising an opening. Plus fielding any press that needs to be done – this display was featured in the local news, on the University website, as well as local TV.
The opening for my case occurred on the 21 April. A select few invitees attended – they were shown the case and a few nice words were said about me by my supervisors Dr Christopher Pittard and Dr Jane Mee (my head grew 3 sizes that day), then tea and coffee. I was very happy to show off the work I had done and point out my favourite pieces in the case. It is now open to the public, but to give a little taste there will be an online exhibition coming soon with a few up close shots of some of the objects (details to follow).
The last thing to say is a huge thank you to everyone at Portsmouth City Council who trained me and helped in making this project possible. I appreciate all your editing skills, your handiwork, suggestions, and putting up with my endless questions! I especially want to thank Katy Ball who walked me through the whole process while allowing me full creative control and the artists who kindly donated their work. As always, I finished this project with a renewed appreciation of my research, and the privilege it is to work with the council and the ACD collection.
*Portsmouth Museum opening times:
April – September: 10.00am – 5.30pm.
October – March: 10.00am – 5.00pm.
Open Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays. Closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays).
Last admission 30 minutes before closing time. Museum shop closes 15 minutes before closing time.
Closed 24 – 26 December and 1 January.