The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a whimsical, if deeply macabre interactive exhibit now open to the public. Visitors are invited to try and solve a grisly murder just like the famed literary hero.
If you’re wondering how many artifacts you can showcase from a fictional character the answer is not many. The exhibition is pretty short on such things. At the entrance are a few stage props from the last three major adaptations including a car from the Guy Ritchie films and a blouse worn by Lucy Liu in Elementary. Beyond that, much of what is seen in the exhibit are facsimiles produced from others collections dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle and associated subjects.
What the exhibition is more interested in is the recreation of the living idea of Sherlock Holmes, and there it succeeds in spades. Visitors are given a notebook that they are supposed to use throughout the exhibition in order to solve a crime. Along the way they are introduced to multiple points of history from the time of Holmes.
The exploration of the birth of the detective story is an early highlight. You can see reproductions of letters between Doyle and his publishers as well as a general history of how people read at the time. There is even some shade thrown by Doyle regarding a fellow author who he didn’t think should be selling so well.
A great deal of time is also spent on the legendary surgeon Joseph Bell who was a primary inspiration for the methods of Holmes. This part of the collection is littered with skulls and skin bearing wounds, allowing visitors to get up close and grimly personal with forensics. Also on the table is a solid primer on the British police force, telegraphs you can try out, the London railway and photography.
The real meat comes beyond that into the various recreations of the crime you’re supposed to be investigating. Here’s where things get next level. Careful attention has been paid to bringing the world of Holmes to life, such as his famous study at Baker Street. The knife in the mantle holding various notes was a particularly thoughtful touch.
The mechanics of investigation are the fun bits. There’s a machine like a grain press that is covered with various shoes you can push around to compare footprints in the sand. A similar device lets you recreate the marks left by dragging a corpse through the sand.
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My personal favorite by far though was the steampunk blood splatter pattern machines. This trio of air-powered gore guns shoot vital fluid again panes of glass to illustrate how different blows and wounds bleed. The windshield wiper that cleans the glass is so delightfully British that I laughed for minutes afterwards.
I, sadly, could not solve the crime because, well, I’m not that smart. I did get to see a collection of school children happily dive in to investigate though, carefully marking and comparing their footprints and blood splatters and bullet holes until they’d caught the culprit. That was almost as fun as the exhibition itself, seeing kids actively learn and deduce in the setting. It was dark, but inspiring; morbid, but magnificent. Any fan of mystery would have loved it.
[location-1] The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes is open now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. $12 - $30.