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Unravel Mystery History at ‘We the Detectives’

This free exhibit traces the path from Sherlock Holmes to Scooby-Doo, with interactive exhibits, and even a live performance.

Philadelphia is the birthplace of many groundbreaking ideas and innovations, but did you know that it’s also the birthplace of the stories of sleuths and spies? The history of mystery comes to life in We the Detectives, a multifaceted, immersive, and completely free experience running at the Free Library of Philadelphia through September 1.


We the Detectives includes interactive exhibits at both the main Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Rosenbach Museum and Library that guide curious minds of all ages through the history of the detective story. The stories are unraveled through theatrical performances and educational exhibits that extend far beyond brick-and-mortar education into the home, making the experience whatever you want it to be or have time for.


Karin Suni, curator of the Theater Collection in the Rare Book Department at the Free Library, helped develop one of the exhibits that bridges the gap between classic tales of detectives like Sherlock Holmes to contemporary pop culture stories such as Scooby-Doo.


“Detective stories are great because they teach critical thinking and logical problem solving, and all of these are skills are really important to have,” Suni said. “This is a good way to start that conversation of, ‘do you like figuring things out? Do you like puzzles?’”


The exhibit at the Rare Book Department weaves you through the experience of looking at preserved detective novels on display, original Edgar Allen Poe manuscripts, and even Nancy Drew puzzles and an original “Clue” game board from 1950.


However, this is only the beginning of how We the Detectives sparks the curious mind to solve mysteries. Gumshoe, an immersive adventure in detection, is the connection between the detective literature at the Free Library and the Rosenbach, all the way into your own home. This experience is for all ages, and truly constructed to give the audience a role in solving mysteries.


“Gumshoe takes you through the public and nonpublic space into the treasures of the library,” actor Camilla Dely said. “You’ll encounter a variety of librarian characters we’ve created, and it’s a contemplation on the nature of truth, fiction, falsehood, and what a library is doing in today’s world.”


Probably the highlight of Gumshoe is that you can make the experience whatever you want it to be, whether it’s a 90-minute theatrical experience at the Free Library, walking adventures from the Rosenbach to the Free Library, navigating hidden rooms in the Free Library that aren’t always open to the public, and even a smartphone platform allowing you to solve mysteries at home. All of these experiences have different time frames, from 20 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on how long you want to spend solving the mystery. The theatrical performance at the Free Library runs until May 8.


The true goal is not only to entertain, but to help redefine the relationship with the library, as it plays its own role within all of the various routes you can take within these adventures.


“What is wonderful about the library being such a huge role is that it’s a place you can visit months later,” actor Jessica Johnson said. “It will always be here for you. Now people have an opportunity to see it in a new light or discover it for the first time.”


More information on showtimes, the mobile experience, and exhibits can be found at freelibrary.org/detectives.


The Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia is at 1901 Vine St., Philadelphia. The Rosenbach Museum and Library is at 2008 Delancey Place, Philadelphia.


Photographs by Casey Kallen. 



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