Reading room of the British Museum Library, from the collections of the British Library
Something new for Curator’s Camera today and a subject I never thought I’d write about, here’s a blog about the BBC’s Sherlock. Specifically, the final episode of season three and the role of Magnussen’s palace of knowledge, ‘Appledore’. Before I go any further though, a warning:
*HERE BE SPOILERS*
Still here? On we go.
Season three’s finale purported to hang on a single notion, that knowledge is power. Sherlock is, in many ways, the embodiment of this, his ‘mind palace’ allowing instant access to all and any facts he may need - unless he happens to be drunk. Episode three’s protagonist, Magnussen, seemed to go one further than Sherlock with his state of the art empire of knowledge built in the English countryside. From this archive of misdeeds Magnussen was able to produce any piece of information in order to exert just the right pressure on those he wished to manipulate.
Holmes himself is in awe of the location, telling Watson of its comprehensiveness and off-line impenetrability as a schematic of the building revolved on screen. This idea, however, is not a new one. Indeed, perfect knowledge and an archive to hold it have long been the aim of ambitious societies. Sherlock recalls the library of Alexandria but there is a much more tangible repository of knowledge closer to home that attempted to fulfil this role - the British Museum Library.
In his 1993 book, The Imperial Archive, Thomas Richards articulated the British Museum Library as being the heart of a vast attempt to quantify and collate all the available knowledge about the British Empire. Through purchase and copyright deposit a collection of books, manuscripts, maps and much more was assembled and Richards asserts that the role of the Library was to create a vast panopticon of knowledge; pored over, classified and categorised by an army of civil servants so that any fact about the lands presided over by the empire could be recalled at any time.
Holmes’ mind palace and Magnussen’s Appledore are the fictional interpretation of this idea, the dream expressed on screen. Interestingly, Magnussen’s Appledore also revealed the impossibility of this endeavour. The Imperial Archive that Richards argues was the aim of the British Empire never happened. As vast and impressive as the collections of the British Museum Library were, information, facts and knowledge are too unruly to be constrained and mastered within the structure of a panopticon.
The reading room in panorama, by Diliff
The conclusion of Sherlock articulated this in a different way. Magnussen’s Appledore turned out to be only a figment of the imagination; his empire was not built on facts but insinuation and fear. The creation of this fear was, in the end, fragile and liable to being trumped by the application of actual force. Hence the dramatic conclusion of the story’s arc.
What Sherlock’s mind palace and the fictitious Appledore show is that the idea of persistent knowledge and the impossibility of its attainment continue to fascinate the imagination. Indeed, the desire to collect and collate information, to have the right fact available at the right time, continues to be the aim of many contemporary societies, as the recent revelations from Edward Snowden show. This story shows that in an age when information is more available than ever it is just as ephemeral, its value and organisation easily unpicked by a single unexpected intervention.
The Imperial Archive then, with its physical relics and imaginative shadows, is still with us. A concept relevant and evolving in the digital twenty-first century but always and ever just beyond reach.