The game is afoot at OMSI

Exhibit explores Sherlock Holmes and the fictional detective's crime-solving methods

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



One of his teachers beat on corpses with a club to learn about bruising. Another professor could tell a man's occupation by examining the calluses on his hands.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle picked up a lot more than a medical degree in college: His time at the University of Edinburgh's medical school provided the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

If you go

• What: “The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes.”

• Where: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., Portland.

• When: Through Jan. 5.

• Tickets: Adults, $18; youth (3-13) and seniors (63 and older), $13. OMSI members, $5 and $3; includes museum admission.

• For adults: OMSI After Dark, 6 to 10 p.m. Oct. 30. $13 admission or $18 for access to Sherlock Holmes exhibit. 21 and older. Details, click here

• Information: OMSI website; 800-955-6674.

Now the worlds of Conan Doyle and fiction's most prominent detective are highlighted in a new exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

"The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes" includes an interactive mystery story featuring century-old scientific crime-solving techniques. Investigators follow the clues from Holmes' sitting room at 221B Baker Street through the streets of 1890s London.

The mood is established by more than 300 archive photographs from the Museum of London and several replications of Holmesian settings.

Another part of the exhibition uses pop-culture memorabilia to document the enduring appeal of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson, the fictional "narrator" of the Holmes adventures.

The exhibition was produced with the cooperation of the author's family. The Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. commissioned the interactive mystery story and the family was represented at the exhibition's world premier by Richard Doyle, grandnephew of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who died in 1930.

Did you know?

• Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes on Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon and teacher at the University of Edinburgh medical school.

• Conan Doyle was knighted for his writing, but not for penning mysteries. He was honored for defending the British role in the 1899-1902 Boer War.

It's been exciting to learn more about the family legacy, Richard Doyle said. While he was aware of his famous relative's writings as a youngster, "My father did not thrust us into it," said Doyle, who runs an information technology company in the United Kingdom.

As far as working his way through the Sherlock Holmes bookshelf, "I'm a bit of a newcomer," he said.

But Doyle already can identify one principle at the heart of his granduncle's stories.

"They respect the reader," Doyle said. "They encourage readers to think for themselves. None of his mysteries are impossible."

Would-be investigators can get an inside look at that principle at OMSI. They are immersed in a murder mystery where they can step into the (gum)shoes of the great detective. Paying close attention to avoid red herrings or too-good-be-to-true revelations, visitors must mark down clues in a provided notebook and take their observations to simulated laboratories where theories can be tested.

Why did a husband kill his family? Was he really driven mad by poison? Where are the corpses?

The exhibit reminds us that everything is not always as it seems: even the long trail leading down a sandy shore that surely could have only been made by dragging a body. If not that, what else? That's up to you to figure out.

Only by analyzing the evidence and avoiding conjecture — an important lesson hammered home throughout the exhibit — can the true story be revealed.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a boy gleefully slammed down buttons in a "slaughterhouse," causing old-fashioned contraptions to squirt fake blood onto glass — and demonstrating how different weapons cause very distinct splatter patterns. Another family tried to trace the path of a bullet that not only left a hole high in a parlor room wall, but also shattered a bust of Napoleon that had been sitting on a table.

The exhibit explains that down-and-dirty investigation techniques like this were a part of solving crimes in 19th-century London, when police didn't have the high-tech tools of today.

Yet even today, the Sherlock Holmes approach to crime solving captivates millions of people.

Recent films starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes have been box-office hits. Updated TV versions of Holmes as a modern-day detective star Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock") and Jonny Lee Miller ("Elementary.") Those adaptations are represented at OMSI by film props and wardrobe items worn by the actors.

Jon Lellenberg, who licenses Conan Doyle's writings in the U.S. on behalf of the estate, said he gets royalty reports every six months. Lellenberg said he got a big surprise during one recent review: "My God! Why are they sending me all this money?"

It was for an electronic-book release of a Holmes publication, Lellenberg said.

Stover E. Harger III contributed to this story.