28 September 2017




When I learned that there was a Sherlock Holmes exhibit at the Toronto Reference Library this fall, I knew I had to see it.
An approximation of the author's reaction to a Sherlock Holmes exhibit, as demonstrated by actors Viktor Yevgrafov and Vasily Livanov from the 1979-1986 Russian Sherlock Holmes series. Source.

Pop Sherlock explores the popularity of the famous fictional detective and his many appearances across different forms of media. The Toronto Reference Library (fun fact: the library was designed by architect Raymond Moriyama, who also designed the Bata Shoe Museum, the Ontario Science Centre, and Museum London) has an Arthur Conan Doyle Room, which past contributing editor Stephanie Read reviewed on Musings in 2016. Pop Sherlock, a temporary exhibit, offers a more colourful and playful look at Doyle's most well-known creation. In this exhibit, visitors can explore the pop culture phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes and see how the character has inspired an unwavering outpouring of adaptations over the past 130 years.

A display case showing original playbills from stage adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

Pop Sherlock is on display in the airy TD Gallery on the first floor of the library. The exhibition has a bold colour palette reminiscent of a pop art aesthetic. I was surprised when I first saw the bright blue walls, which seem antithetical to the typical aura expected of Sherlock Holmes. It definitely adds an air of excitement and freshness to a body of Victorian literature that is being constantly reinvented. This atmosphere is augmented by instrumental music playing on speakers throughout the exhibit, which changes in tone from ominous to bombastic. These design choices help bring the exhibition story to life.

I was amazed by the selection of artifacts on display in the exhibition, as I walked into the library exhibit expecting to see mostly books in cases. Pop Sherlock does have books, but it also has framed original movie posters, old playbills, comic books, and several items of collectible paraphernalia. There is even a letter written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. I was especially excited at the inclusion of animation cels from The Great Mouse Detective and Sherlock Hound.

A selection of unusual (and adorable) Holmes-inspired objects are on display. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

By showing this range of materials, Pop Sherlock effectively communicates how the spirit of Sherlock Holmes has endured in the public consciousness since the first story was published in 1887. Even in the twenty-first century, people have continued to love Sherlock Holmes. The exhibition doesn’t delve into exactly why Sherlock Holmes has been so popular, aside from a didactic panel which insinuates that “There is no time in human history when a cool head and a brilliant mind are not invaluable.” Judging by the presence of other visitors in the exhibit during my visit on a late Saturday afternoon, there probably is no need to investigate why the stories are popular. People going into this exhibition are likely already intrigued by the subject material, and prove that Sherlock Holmes is still beloved and a subject of interest.

A label next to a movie poster of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

I wish the exhibition had touched on the feelings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator, in regards to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. During his heyday, Doyle became famously disgruntled over the public adoration for Holmes and the continuing demand for more stories featuring the detective. Doyle's attempt to kill off Holmes in The Final Problem was met with mass fan despair, which eventually led Doyle to begrudgingly write more Holmes stories again. Below is a filmed interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which he touches upon the popular response to Sherlock Holmes (as well as spiritualism).

I appreciate how Pop Sherlock encourages visitors to explore the world of Sherlock Holmes through literature, whether you’ve read all the stories or none. Several Holmes pastiches were brought to my attention throughout the exhibit. Near the entrance of the gallery is an interactive touchscreen where users can discover stories about Holmes. Those interested in pastiches are provided clickable prompts denoting narrative angles the user could be interested in reading. I expressed my interest in reading about a female sleuth and was recommended The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (which, incidentally, I’ve been meaning to read one of these days when my grad school duties aren't so pressing).

An image of the interactive app in the exhibition. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

However, while there was plenty of material provided for those who have already read the original Sherlock Holmes stories, I found that this interactive device lacked options for those who might be reading the stories for the first time. A visitor new to Holmes is only offered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when using this app. Why not model the pastiche section of the app by asking readers their interests and recommending them a particular Holmes story? For example, those wanting a female-focused story could be encouraged to read “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” (my personal favourite) or “A Scandal in Bohemia”, or someone interested in adventure tales could be told to try “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” or “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” The stand-alone novels like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles could have also been brought to users’ attention.

After all, this is an exhibit that shows that when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, there is much to discover.


Whether you're headed to the Toronto Reference Library for studying or for a break from studying, check out the exhibit while you're there and pick up some new reading material. If you can’t make it out to the library, most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain, and links to pdfs can be found online. I encourage you to check Pop Sherlock out!

Pop Sherlock will be on display until October 22. Free guided tours are offered every Tuesday at 2pm.


  1. What a great review! And thank you for pointing out the problems of interactivity! And now, my turn to go for a visit :)

    1. Thank you for reading, Dr. Mihalache! I hope you enjoy the exhibition!