Chat Note: This looks absolutely adorable, and I wish I lived closer, because I’d be there in a hot minute. If you go, you are commanded to take lots of pictures and tell me all about how precious this is!
Starting with the titular murder scene, participants move from chapter to chapter, analyzing evidence while exploring rooms that range from a blacksmith’s shop to a seedy Limehouse opium den. The exhibit is designed to engage all of the senses — except perhaps taste; that may require a detour to a local alehouse — and activate all of the brain’s logic centres.
Jeff McCarron, director of exhibitions, says the Holmes project has been a popular travelling feature for over 17 years, and is a different kind of exhibit for the centre. It takes inquiry-based learning to process the information you’re given, follow the story and line up the clues to solve the crime, compared with the in-your-face presentations and demonstrations for which the facility is known.
And you don’t have to be a expert on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective to enjoy piecing it all together.
“It’s a fun experience to just go through and put the clues together,” says McCarron. “You don’t even need to know who Sherlock Holmes is in order to do it. You’ll enjoy yourself either way.
“And this particular story is not part of the original Sherlock Holmes saga; it’s completely original for this interactive exhibit.”
The timing of the Clocktower Mystery is fortuitous for the centre, coming in the middle of a Holmes renaissance sparked by the BBC’s modern-day update with Benedict Cumberbatch, the CBS series Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller, and a pair of CGI-enhanced Victorian adventures directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as an action hero-oriented version of Doyle’s detective.
There’s also Mr. Holmes, an upcoming feature film starring The Lord of the Rings’ wizard Gandalf, Ian McKellen, as an aged Holmes, pulled away from his retirement hobby of beekeeping to solve one final mystery. Like that film, Sherlock Holmes and the Clocktower Mystery is an original tale, full of the requisite elements like a dank waterfront alley and strange characters like a Houdini-esque escape artist and mystic seance host, the Baroness.
“I have a background in theatre production, so I was quite impressed by the detail in the exhibit,” says McCarron. “It’s very theatrical, using sets, lighting, sound and creating an environment, to immerse you in these experiences.
“That’s what really appeals to us, too.”
The theatrical aspect doesn’t end at lights and sounds, either. At the end of the exhibit, visitors are ushered into an office where they meet a flesh-and-blood detective to converse about the case at the end of their fact-finding mission.
On this day in particular, it’s Irene Adler, Holmes’s famous female nemesis, portrayed by paleontologist and Discovery Centre interpreter Zabrina Prescott.
A longtime Holmes fan, of both the original stories and the newer incarnations, Prescott couldn’t wait to take part in the Clocktower Mystery, and do a bit of role-playing with the crowd.
“It’s been a great experience working in this kind of setting,” she says. “When I found out this exhibit was coming, I think I showed a little too much enthusiasm to my boss, and so here I am, wearing a corset and playing Irene Adler.
“When I learned it was a murder mystery, I became more intrigued. It’s such an immersive, interdisciplinary experience, you basically get to come and really become part of a book. The way the exhibit’s laid out, you start with an introduction and then move through the various chapters, and it’s this interesting timeline where you become completely involved in the story.”
Prescott is one of two actors who helps participants work their way through the mystery to find the solution when they finally arrive in the detective’s office. Besides playing the exotic Adler, whom Holmes always considered his equal, she enjoys the one-on-one encounters with visitors, which is never the same thing twice.
“Their input becomes part of they storytelling. When I explain the answer, I don’t just say who the murderer was, I include them in the experience and help them become involved,” she explains. “There’s a lot of weird clues along the way. You may have to go through more than once. It takes a lot of attention to detail to solve the mystery and get the full experience out of it as well.
“We’ve had a number of very young children, aged three or four, who come into the detective office to tell me their own story, their own version of what happened. That’s also very fun, they come through and tell me this story about a magician and how there’s a ghost and so on, and I think, ‘OK, sure, why not?’ It’s something for everybody, whether you take it as solving a murder mystery or creating your own experience of what being a time traveller — or a character in a story — is like.”
For Prescott, there’s also the bonus of seeing the exhibit’s effect on a very particular group of participants.
“I’ve seen a lot of first dates come through. It’s a great relationship test. Are you working together, or are you competing with one another?
“It’s a great way to test your affinity for one another.”