On Monday, April 27, University of Michigan libraries will open an exhibit from a special collection of works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “Clues Beyond Sherlock Holmes: The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at Michigan.” UM will hold an opening reception May 17.
When The Chronicle dropped by on Thursday before the Monday opening, Kathryn Beam and Kate Hutchens, curators of the exhibit, were nailing down the final details of the material to be shown on the seventh floor of Hatcher Library. Most of the glass display cases were already filled with books, many of them resting on custom-crafted cradles, to allow a glimpse inside the volumes. A shop-vac attested to the work in progress. Later in the day, some of the conservationists were to arrive to work on the wall-mounted glass cases.
Where did the material in the university’s Conan Doyle collection come from, and what occasioned the exhibit?
The timing coincides with the 6th Annual Ann Arbor Book Festival, which runs from May 15-17. Dr. Philip Parker of West Bloomfield, Michigan donated the items, which range from rare editions of early books by Conan Doyle to photographs, pewter statues, audio recordings, and a plush dog dressed as Sherlock Holmes. It was Dr. Parker’s father, Hyman Parker, who started the family’s collection. Among the items is a charcoal drawing of Hyman done in 1964, which depicts him dressed as the Sherlock Holmes, and inscribed by the artist to “Hymie Holmes.” But the collection reflects the breadth of Conan Doyle’s writings, which included far more than just the familiar detective stories. After the elder Parker’s death in 1975, his son expanded the range of materials, with a practicing psychiatrist’s eye towards its research potential, emphasizing Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism.
When a donor like Parker offers a large volume of material for a UM special collection, how does all that stuff make its way into the library for an exhibit? The first step is elementary: you box it for transport to the Hatcher Library. In this case it came a relatively short distance – from West Bloomfield – which made it a hands-on process for UM library staff. Kathyrn Beam, curator of humanities collections in the special collections library, did a lot of the boxing.
Beam’s colleague, Kate Hutchens, who’s a reference assistant with the library, then began an intake process that included pencilling very lightly into each book the new owner’s name – the University of Michigan – and the name of the collection. Hutchens confirmed that yes, she’d handled every item in the 120 boxes that Beam had packed up.
As for the task of lightly inscribing the items, she accomplished it with a combination of dexterity (you just don’t press as hard) and a #3 pencil. When The Chronicle pressed Hutchens, she allowed that the inscription task itself was somewhat menial. When pressed even further, however, she described how the placement of the light pencil inscription required some judgment: You don’t want to inscribe a page to which a book might be opened for an exhibit; you want to put it in a logical, easy-to-find place, not just willy-nilly. The title page is often a good candidate, she said.
As for the pages to which books are opened for an exhibit, Beam explained that this was also a decision not made on a random basis. For example, there’s a passage in “The Last Bow,” which Beam said could be interpreted as forecasting World War II. So the book will be opened to that passage for the exhibit.
In conversation with Beam and Hutchens, it’s apparent that they’re familiar with the biography of Arthur Conan Doyle at a fine level of detail. Hutchens said she brought little background knowledge to her work on the exhibit, but that by reading a couple of biographies as well as “pausing as you come across things” in processing the materials, she’d amassed quite a bit of knowledge about the author. One of the items in the collection that had caused her to pause was a book of illustrations by Conan Doyle’s uncle, Richard Doyle, showing fairies in a “documentary style,” depicting them doing what fairies naturally do: “torturing butterflies and birds, but in a friendly and mischievous way.”
Hutchens noted the connection between the fairy drawings and the “Cottingley Fairies,” which was an episode in which Conan Doyle came down on the side of believing that photographs made of cut-out paper fairies actually depicted fairies.
In addition to some material on fairies, visitors to the exhibit can expect to see display cases dedicated to Conan Doyle’s writings on the Boer War (for which he was knighted), true crime narratives and historical fiction. Beam said that the Parker family collection covered the breadth of Conan Doyle’s writings, so that by sampling from the collection, the exhibit was sampling from the range of Conan Doyle’s life and work at the same time.
The formal reception celebrating the opening of the exhibit will take place on Sunday, May 17 from 2 to 5 p.m. and will include remarks by Daniel Hack, associate professor of English, as well as the donor, Dr. Philip Parker. The reception – to be held in the Library Gallery, Room 100 on the ground floor of the Hatcher Library – will feature foods mentioned in books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Those foods will be catered by Amanda Fisher of Amanda’s Kitchen.
Attendees are also invited to dress as their favorite Conan Doyle character. Harriet Teller, manager of stewardship and events for the library, is planning to come dressed as Irene Adler from “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
The event is free, but UM libraries would appreciate an RSVP by May 7 to plan for food quantities: Contact LibraryDevelopment@umich.edu or 734-763-7368.