Ex­plor­ing the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion

Cana­dian ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don fea­tures items from ship­wreck, Inuit ar­ti­facts

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PER­SPEC­TIVES - BY ROB DRINKWA­TER

When the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory be­gan plan­ning a new ex­hi­bi­tion on the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion now show­ing in the United King­dom, nei­ther of the voy­age’s two doomed ships had been found.

But af­ter HMS Ere­bus was lo­cated in 2014 and HMS Ter­ror was found in 2016, cu­ra­tors for the ex­hibit were given the op­por­tu­nity to in­clude some of the newly re­cov­ered ar­ti­facts.

The show also high­lights the role that Inuit oral his­tory played in find­ing the ship­wrecks.

“We re­ally wanted to give credit where credit was due in the ex­hi­bi­tion,” said cu­ra­tor Karen Ryan. “The Inuit were in the Arc­tic long be­fore Eu­ro­peans went look­ing for the North­west Pas­sage.

“What we know up un­til now about what hap­pened to the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion comes largely from Inuit oral his­tory that has been passed down for 170 years.”

Ryan noted that Parks Canada and re­searchers started look­ing in ar­eas where the Inuit had in­di­cated they had seen ships still in­hab­ited and then later de­serted.

The ex­pe­di­tion led by Sir John Franklin left Eng­land in 1845 with 129 men to search for a north­ern sea route be­tween the At­lantic and Pa­cific oceans. No one ever re­turned, and search mis­sions de­ter­mined that both ships be­came ice­bound and were aban­doned.

Re­mains of some of the sailors have been found. Some the­o­ries about the ill-fated voy­age in­clude lead poi­son­ing and spoiled tinned pre­serves.

In­ter­est in the mys­tery has re­mained strong in the U.K. where some peo­ple trace fam­ily trees back to Franklin’s men.

The Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum in Lon­don, where the ex­hi­bi­tion will re­main on dis­play un­til early Jan­uary, held a pre­vi­ous Franklin show in 2009.

A Swedish cloth­ing com­pany, Brix­tol, that draws in­spi­ra­tion from U.K. styles, has in­tro­duced a Franklin-in­spired cloth­ing line.

And the U.K. is get­ting the new ex­hi­bi­tion first. Its de­but at the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory in Gatineau, Que., is set for next March.

“I think it was a pro­found shock to Vic­to­rian Bri­tain that such a large and well-pre­pared ex­pe­di­tion could have dis­ap­peared ... (and) ended in the way that it did,” Claire War­rior, se­nior ex­hi­bi­tions cu­ra­tor with the Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum, said about the en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with Franklin.

Items from HMS Ere­bus in­clude the ship’s bell, which Parks Canada re­cov­ered in 2014, as well as dishes and a shoe.

The Nu­navut gov­ern­ment has loaned a piece of iron­work from a boat-launch­ing mech­a­nism on the ship. The davit pin­tle was dis­cov­ered shortly be­fore the Ere­bus was lo­cated and alerted searchers that they were in the right area.

The show also in­cludes tra­di­tional Inuit seal­skin cloth­ing, kayaks and im­ple­ments. There are also items from a vast col­lec­tion of ma­te­rial re­trieved in the years af­ter the mis­sion and brought back to Bri­tain, in­clud­ing the Vic­tory Point Note, the last known mes­sage from the crew. It was dis­cov­ered on King Wil­liam Is­land in 1859.

“One of the things we re­ally wanted to do ... was to bring the voices of those men back as much as we could, so ... we use some ex­cerpts of let­ters that they wrote home to their fam­i­lies when they were still in Green­land, and these every­day ob­jects that you can look at,” Ryan said.

“The din­ner plates, you can see the scratch marks where knives were cut­ting into the plate. Just things to re­mind you that these were liv­ing, breath­ing hu­man be­ings.”

Own­er­ship and pos­ses­sion of items re­cov­ered from the wrecks them­selves re­mains un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion be­tween Parks Canada, the Nu­navut and U.K. gov­ern­ments and Inuit or­ga­ni­za­tions.

This sum­mer, Parks Canada’s un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­ol­ogy team is re­turn­ing to Nu­navut for pre­lim­i­nary dives on HMS Ter­ror and to con­tinue work on HMS Ere­bus.

For the cu­ra­tors, the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion is a de­vel­op­ing story.

“There’s only so much we know right now,” Ryan said. “And find­ing ... where the ships were lo­cated, find­ing Ere­bus pretty much ex­actly where the Inuit oral his­tory had talked about see­ing an in­hab­ited ship - that re­ally puts a nice note on the ac­cu­racy of the oral his­to­ries and how they can re­ally be meshed well with his­tor­i­cal re­search and with ar­chae­ol­ogy.”


Oil paint­ing of HMS Ere­bus in the Ice, 1846, by Fran­cois Eti­enne Musin.


An ar­chae­ol­o­gist col­lects sam­ples un­der­wa­ter from HMS Ere­bus.


Snow gog­gles from Franklin’s last ex­pe­di­tion.


An Inuit-made model of a Eu­ro­pean ship is part of the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory’s Franklin ex­pe­di­tion ex­hibit, now show­ing in Lon­don, Eng­land.


Parks Canada’s un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­ol­ogy team in­ves­ti­gates HMS Ere­bus in Nu­navut.


Sir John Franklin was a fa­mous British ex­plorer who jour­neyed to the Arc­tic in search of the North-West Pas­sage, dy­ing on his last at­tempt in 1847.

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