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  • The Detective Annex: Where Is 221B Baker Street?
  • Alison Booth (bio)

In april 2014, I visited the University of Minnesota to give a talk to the Nineteenth-Century Area Study Group about author countries and literary geography. The talk was an annex to Homes and Haunts, the book that I was finishing on literary homes and tourism—a work long delayed because I had become an immigrant in Digital Humanities Country, a lotus land where projects take forever. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Sherlock Holmes aficionada, but in 2014, I had become a Sherlock fan, catching up with the BBC series that, since 2010, has nicely linked neo-Victorianism and digital media. In Minneapolis, after a visit to Longfellow Park, where I saw Minnehaha Falls (named after the heroine of Hiawatha) and a scale replica of Longfellow’s colonial-era house in Cambridge, Massachusetts,1 I picked my way through melting snow to visit the university’s splendid library. And there I came upon a fragment of the kind of museums that I write about in my book: a replica of Sherlock Holmes’s study in his lodgings at 221B Baker Street, London. Why here? I thought. Brightly lit, the scant bits of Victoriana stiffly arranged in a too-wide windowless space, it seemed amateur but also emblematic of professional collections: a literary museum embedded in a library. I knew that other libraries housed rooms dedicated to real writers—even replicas of their studies. The genre of the reconstructed sanctum of genius ranges from the museum-like contents of Freud’s study in Vienna, transferred to and now exhibited at his house in Hampstead (Goldhill 103–22), to replicas of L. Ron Hubbard’s study in every Scientology church around the world (University of Minnesota 9). But there never was a 221B Baker Street.

My first thought was of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, London, which I mention in my book. I own a Holmesian matchbox and a pseudo blue plaque for Holmes’s residence, souvenirs that someone might suppose I collected in earnest from the museum (fig. 1).2 For this forum, I want to question assumptions about the motives of Holmesian fans and point out the historical ties between exhibits of literary interiors and academic literary scholarship. Theorists and scholars often take a censorious stance toward collecting and museums, as well as the most commercialized adaptations and fandom, as if participants delude themselves about the objects of their desire and collude in systems of social oppression.3 Delusion and collusion, of course, seem embedded in any widely invested practice, but we can be more observant detectives or historians of these practices. Libraries, whether in special collections or DH centres such as the one I run, are like detective annexes, circumventing the incompetent police or tenured academics even as they serve the same cause. Libraries often mount temporary or permanent exhibits. Similarly, literary museums [End Page 1] mirror academia’s collecting of virtual knowledge about writers and works but with emphatic attachment to physical settings of author and text. Just as I appreciate house museums as imaginative collective biographies, I have gained respect for, as I learned more about, the library’s version of 221B, in which each object is a silent, slightly playful commentary on the Holmes canon. Among the Holmesians or Sherlockians, the artifact is a clue, but it is a ludic make-believe, extrapolating from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, which are designed as entertainments to tickle the knowledge bone.

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Fig. 1.

Imitation blue plaque for 221B Baker St.

Photo courtesy of the author.

The subject of Doyle’s ubiquitous invention is vast. Rather than follow the scholarship on the author, the stories, and the countless adaptations, I consider the strange case of the 221B Baker Street study, or sitting room, as a straight-faced, extra-academic entertainment. For a century, groups of devotees of the Holmes canon have played the Grand Game: briefly, the founding rules of the Game are that players regard Doyle as the literary agent and Watson as the author of the stories; Watson and Holmes were...


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