Sherlock Holmes exhibition brings curious crowds to Museum of Nature & Science

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has offered special exhibitions that are historically timely and scientifically topical in recent years. But never has it latched onto a popular-culture trend so much as it has with its current feature, “The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes.”

At a time when the fictional 19th-century English detective is the subject of multiple television shows and an ongoing series of movies, the museum is hosting an interactive exhibition in which visitors try to solve a new mystery using the scientific methods available in his Victorian era.

But while it combines aspects of history, science and literature, the exhibition also allows the museum in City Park — Denver’s second most popular paid attraction— to expand its reach to a whole new group of customers, both locally and in drive markets.

And coming after the museum drew a record 500,000 visitors to its last special exhibit, “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids,” this holds the opportunity to build a momentum that the facility has rarely experienced.

“I’d say that these exhibitions really are putting the museum in the spotlight for audiences who may not typically come here but are seeing our exhibits now and learning what they can do,” said Jennifer Moss Logan, an educator and exhibition coordinator. “We are always thinking about how to be relevant to our whole audience.”

Sherlock Holmes, originally the creation of doctor-turned-novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, has been relevant for more than 120 years, Logan noted. But with shows featuring the Holmes character on both CBS (“Elementary”) and the BBC (“Sherlock”) right now; a pair of action movies in which he’s played by Robert Downey Jr.; and “Mr. Holmes,” a film released this summer starring Ian McKellen as the detective in his old age, he’s hipper than most stars born in the two centuries after him.

Visitors to the exhibition begin by learning about Doyle and how his medical background helped him to create some of the methods that Holmes used to solve crimes — methods that continue to be used by crime-scene investigators today.

Then, after being plunged into the London Underground to understand trends of the times, they are led to the detective’s study and asked to solve a crime that appears to involve a scandalous murder.

The heart of the exhibition — Logan says it takes up some 45 minutes of the 90 minutes recommended for seeing it — involves testing out various pieces of evidence and discerning what they mean to the crime. Guests can use machines to determine the trajectory of blood spatter, the cause of a shattered bust and the question of whether marks outside the door of the crime-scene home represent a person walking away or a body being dragged.

“This is a level of interaction and engagement around a story that we’ve never seen before,” Logan said. “We’ve seen people who walk up to strangers and ask what evidence they have.”

After visitors solve the crime using booklets they are given, will they be interested in coming back to the museum or even in staying to see any of the other exhibits, such as the ongoing “The Power of Poison,” though? Logan says that the advantage of having opened a second exhibition gallery last year is that while its contents may not appeal to all the throngs coming to the Holmes exhibition, it is bound to get some traction.

Ultimately, Denver Museum of Nature & Science officials still have a while to learn whether the exhibition — which opened Oct. 23 and runs through Jan. 31 — attracts new visitors from the area and even the out-of-town tourists they’re hoping to draw. Early returns are positive, though, Logan said.

“Our member nights are sold out or are selling out,” she added. “The Sherlock craze, the Sherlock energy is really clear here in Denver.”

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