The recent attempt to place the Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest in the demolition-threatened Public Records Office, Portsmouth is a sad indictment of the lack of vision and desperation of protesters – and the incoherent cultural strategy of Portsmouth City Council. I’m glad to say that little piece of fantasy town planning has at least been rejected.
Don’t get me wrong. I am sympathetic to attempts to stop development of the Records Office Site.
Indeed, I can imagine the outrage of the good citizens of Old Portsmouth and its environs when they were told they were going to get a block of flats built on the obviously knackered Records Office in the Portsmouth Museum’s grounds.
And rightly so. After all, with the arrival of the revolting, steroid-bulked and vomit-inducingly ugly sport complex across the road in Ravelin Park, we see yet more of the few pieces of open space and open sky in this part of the city lost forever. Soon, I am sure, Ravelin Park will be reduced to a few square metres of lawn edged with University cafes, bars and dorms infilling the open space wherever possible and closing out yet more Pompey sky with the UoP’s specialism: badly-scaled and oppressive architecture.
On that level, the thought of yet more flats going up on the old Clarence Barracks grounds is, indeed, horrible. Let’s face it, over the wall at the back of the Museum stands an estate of faceless suburban infill. Dull little houses and non-descript blocks of flats. The residents in that little slice of suburbia grafted onto one of the most historic parts of Portsmouth are right to make a fuss. “We don’t need more homes like ours! After all, when we’re indoors, we don’t have to look at the ones already here!”
And so, in desperation, they cast around for a reason to save one of the few Victorian heritage buildings left in the area. I can imagine the concerned denizens of Old Portsmouth seeking a saviour, and hoping that none other than the great sleuth himself, Sherlock Holmes might don his deerstalker and save the day. And so the idea was born:
“The council has been promising us a museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes for nearly two decades now, let’s put it in the Records Office and kill two birds with one stone!”
It probably appeared like a sure-fire winner to put pressure on the council, especially with the addition of celebrity endorsement…
…Or maybe not. Stephen Fry has been known to get behind such attempts in the past with mixed results. He brought his influence to bear ineffectively at Hindhead – failing to save Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s old gaff, from developers who converted the site into a special needs school.
But let’s be clear, putting Conan Doyle in the Records Office was just… well… silly. Though I do have strong support for preventing yet more urban infill in the grounds of the former Clarence Barracks, you need to find a way to both stop that happening – AND keep your hands off Sherlock at the same time.
Yes, a Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes Museum in Portsmouth is a great idea. No, putting it in that Records Office was not. The building is knackered and will cost a fortune to underpin. But more importantly, stuffing what should be a world-class exhibition in a building so badly suited for the purpose would betray the people of Portsmouth and the Conan Doyle legacy. It would be like stuffing the Crown Jewels into Milton Village Community Association hall. – Sure, it’s a good building. But not for that.
I mean how mean and low have our sights here in Portsmouth fallen?
This brings us to the question of what Portsmouth should expect from a Conan Doyle Museum. Definitely not a few cramped rooms in the Records Office to show off the 40,000 documents and 18,000 further artefacts, that’s for sure! Where’s the sense of scale in Portmuthians? Where’s the understanding of the bloody goldmine we’re sitting on?
Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most enduring icons of the 19th and 20th Centuries. His fame now is as big as it has ever been. Conan Doyle’s characters have spawned countless films, plays, games… the list goes on. A look at PCC’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection will show you just what the massive appeal is. Similarly, a visit to Northumberland Avenue off Trafalgar Square will show you some of the potential. Stand outside the Sherlock Holmes pub – a site that is totally manufactured and has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes – and in normal times you will see busloads of tourists swing by, take a few snaps, then go inside to buy a pint and a meal. It’s a completely invented site with no links to Holmes and Doyle and it might as well be printing its own money.
The main failing in Portsmouth’s view of the potential a Conan Doyle Museum presents is embodied by the idea that the Records Office will be good enough for a world-class exhibition. It won’t. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, when it comes, needs to be a conference centre, a place where theatrical performances and arts groups can be supported, and it needs to be in an area where the massive crowds of fans, scholars, sightseers, conference-goers and more besides can relax and enjoy their visit.
Sadly, one of the great potential venues for such a site appears to have been lost. Southsea Debenhams is set to be converted to yet more residential property, although there has recently been some talk about using part of that space by using one floor. But, really, is one floor enough for a world class draw? Think about how good it could be were it a really large scale venue providing far more than an exhibition. Stepping out from the Museum, tourists would be surrounded by shops and cafes. It was in many ways perfect… but neither the money nor the will to do it has yet been found.
So, my own view, is – yes, by all means save the Records Office. Woohoo! We don’t want to lose more Victoriana in Portsmouth.
But don’t insult Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes with such a stupid idea as putting them in that tiny, unworkable space.
Portsmouth deserves better.