At 221B Baker Street is a museum devoted to that most famous of amateur detectives, Sherlock Holmes.
Actually, there isn’t, but bear with me.
Today there is a 221 Baker Street, but when the novels were written, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wisely chose a non-existent address, 221 Baker Street — so how is an address that exists today also non-existent?
At the time, Baker Street was shorter than it is today, and what is today 221 Baker Street was at the time 32 Upper Baker Street. The road was renamed and the houses renumbered in the 1940s, which is when finally 221 Baker Street came into existence and was famously the head office of the Abbey National bank. That has since been converted into a block of flats behind the Abbey National’s 1930s facade.
So where’s the Sherlock Holmes Museum?
A few doors along is 221B Baker Street — it used to be 239 Baker Street, but by agreement with Westminster Council, in 1990 it was renumbered 221B Baker Street, and that’s where the Royal Mail will deliver letters.
The museum opened in 1990 right in the middle of the huge success of Granada Television’s adaptions with Jeremy Brett, initially only occupying the upper floors of this 1815 building which had long been empty flats, but they later took over the ground floor wine bar and turned that into a large Holmes memorabilia shop.
So you can stand outside and pose in front of the door marked 221B, or head inside, buy a ticket and walk up the staircase behind that famous door.
Inside are a series of rooms that’ll look familiar to anyone familiar with the stories, with the living room and side bedroom packed full of, what we are told are authentic Victorian items. However, they then have labels that describe them as if they are real objects collected by Sherlock Holmes. From the “Voodo fetish from the house of Mr. Garcia found murdered on Oxshott Common” to the “Bulldog revolver concealed in a Bible belonging to the ex-rev. Williamson”, everything is displayed as if they are real objects related to real events.
This slightly throws you into existentialist thoughts, and is this a museum, or an experience? The objects on display are genuine objects from Victorian London, so it’s a museum, but all the labels are wrong because they refer to a fictional character. If they had much more on display about the novel’s author and the many times the character had been shown in other media, then it’d be a museum, but I am going to say the Sherlock Holmes Museum is closer to those film set tours where you get to see inside sets used on movies and TV shows.
That’s not to say it’s bad or wrong, it’s a very good set-up they have created, and on my visit, the handful of tourists seemed very happy to be here. There’s a guest book, and flicking through the pages, I’d say this is very much a museum visited by foreign tourists, with barely a handful of people listing England as their country.
Something else worth flicking through though are the letters. As an address, 221B Baker Street gets lots of letters. Really, a lot of them, and some are on display. A number are clearly fans of the books writing in to say something suitable, but a lot seem to be from people who think Sherlock Holmes is real. Setting aside the fact that Sherlock is thought to have been born in 1854, so would be a very impressive 168 years old today, people still write in asking for help and advice. Not Jemma aged 6¾, who could be expected to write to her favourite bedtime character, but mainly from adults asking for help for very real problems they are having.
In a way, utterly baffling that people think a 168 year old man is still alive, and really did solve the mystery of the man with the twisted lip and battle Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, but if it gives people comfort to think that, then fair enough.
A second floor is given over to more collectables, and do notice the Aspidistra on the landing, but its the third floor that surprises, and delivers what most cynical people are expecting of such a tourist trap museum – a couple of rooms of laughably bad waxworks showing scenes from the detective’s more famous stories.
But is it fun to visit?
Setting aside the argument about whether it’s a museum or not, it’s not that bad.
Undeniably, it’s overpriced, especially considering that there are plenty of other Victorian houses that belonged to real people to visit in London, and they’re all cheaper. So, yes, this is a bit of a tourist trap – but in an odd way, I am pleased to have ticked it off the list of museums to visit. It’s not as bad as I had expected and while it’s not worth £15, as a massive Jeremy Brett era fan, I didn’t feel utterly ripped off.
Personally, I’d say the second floor is currently a wasted space and the museum would be so much better if they gave that over to the heritage of the many actors to have played the role, but then that might spoil the magic that the museum tries to weave, that Sherlock Holmes was a real man, and this is where he lived.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum is at 221B Baker Street, to the north of Baker Street tube station, and is open Wed-Sun 10am-5pm.
Elsewhere, there’s also The Sherlock Holmes, a pub near Charing Cross, with a collection of Sherlock memorabilia originally collected for the Festival of Britain.