To be honest on a boiling hot day there is nothing better than slipping into the cool darkness of a museum exhibition. Death in the Ice: The shocking story of Franklin’s final expedition, is even more of a temptation as just the thought of all that ice chills me to the bone, but I think it is the terrible fate of Franklin’s 128 man crew that leaves me with goosebumps when I finally leave the National Maritime Museum (NMM).
Sir John Franklin set out on the 19 May 1845 with his crew aboard two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror in the hope of finally finding the North-West Passage. Much experienced and well travelled, 59 year old Franklin was the British nation’s biggest hope of finding the much desired passage from Europe to Asia through the frozen Arctic waters and the dream of an easier trade route.
Last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay in July 1845, the fate of Franklin and his crew has long been the subject of rumour and exposition. Some evidence has been controversial and the cause of much debate, but slowly, piece by piece, expedition after expedition, the story has been uncovered.
‘Death in the Ice’ is an exhibition that has been developed by the Canadian Museum of History in partnership with the NMM and Parks Canada, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust. What seems like quite a mouthful makes for an incredibly rich exhibition. There are almost too many angles to follow and if you are fairly new to polar exploration it makes for an engrossing visit.
We were lucky enough to visit the Polar Museum in Cambridge earlier this year and I first came face to face with Franklin and began to hear his incredible story. I was quite captivated by a fox collar, the strangest of objects, that gave me the inkling that his story is something quite remarkable. Eight arctic foxes were fitted with inscribed collars and released in the hope that the missing men would read the message. (I can’t imagine why they thought Franklin would have the time or energy to chase an arctic fox but it starts to give you an idea of how desperate people were to find him.)
There are over 200 objects in ‘Death in the Ice’ and the NMM does an excellent job, for those new to the story, of explaining the search for the North-West Passage whilst also giving depth and further exploration of topics to those visitors who know the story well.
Behind all the objects, interpretation and theories, is the very human story of the loss of two ships and 129 men which is kept at the heart of a sensitively told look at Franklin’s final journey. That sense of unknown, the thrill of adventure and the harsh realities of surviving in unimaginably difficult conditions is perhaps the hardest part of this tale for modern visitors to comprehend.
There are many layers to the story and I love that we begin with a look at the role of the Inuits and their oral story telling traditions that passed down sightings of Westerners in huge wooden ships that may have been like alien craft visiting their frozen shores. It is fascinating that some of the 30 plus expeditions sent to find Franklin heard tales of Europeans that may have actually come from 300 years earlier, possibly relaying sightings of Martin Frobisher’s visit in 1576-78.
The impact of European culture and technology is explored on the local Inuit population as traditional Inuit tools are displayed with original bone blades replaced with European sourced metal. These clues were the breadcrumbs that led to an understanding of how far Franklin had reach and with whom he had interacted.
There is a brilliant digital map that shows the gradual painstaking discovery and mapping of the arctic coastline as explorer after explorer pushed themselves to the limit of the known world from a European viewpoint and to the limit of human endurance. Each journey coming tantalisingly closer to discovering the North-West Passage.
There are some wonderful insights to life onboard ship, Franklin’s crew may have been adventurers but they were scientists too and the daily routine was often filled with taking readings and atmospheric observations, keeping themselves busy and out of trouble. The threat of the cat-o’-nine tails a reminder of the discipline needed to be kept at all times and perhaps that failure of law and order onboard ship and desperate circumstances may have had a hand in Franklin’s demise.
There is also a sense of the fun and camaraderie onboard too with some fantastic play bills that point to a little bit of leisure time filled not only with acting but the making and designing of costumes and scenery. I love these additions to the exhibition as it reminds us of the boredom and fun the men had and brings us closer to understanding their journey.
This is not just a tale of men though, with the rather formidable Jane Franklin at the heart of so many of the over 30 expeditions sent out to try and find her husband. Jane – instigator, letter writer, funder and by all accounts thorn in the side of the Admiralty she seems like a women worthy of further investigation. It is understandable, with so much to cover, that the exhibition doesn’t dwell on her but it was one part I would have liked to see expanded. Her letter written to her missing husband made me think how each expedition must have stirred up new hope, the crew lists show men from across the whole country. How their poor families must have hoped and waited on news.
It being no easy thing to send any ship to the Arctic searching for news, you can imagine the debate it must have caused after the HMS Investigator’s scurvy-ridden and starving crew had to be rescued after three winters trapped in an icy bay. Even a reward of £20,000 must at some point have been weighed against the loss of even more lives.
In many ways the objects brought back by Dr John Rae and Francis McClintock, evidence of Franklin’s journey, are so simple and underwhelming. A pair of snow goggles, a packet of needles and food tins, but they serve as clues and signs of life that must have been eagerly anticipated by families back at home. The dust cover of ‘Ice Master’ James Reid’s watch or a delicate beaded purse, such personal possessions left abandoned take you so close to individuals without actually telling you the story of their last moments.
The NMM is sensitive to visitors and to those few bodies that were found in the snow with photographs that can be viewed in a sectioned off part of the exhibition. The pictures of bodies so well preserved in the ice are unsettling but lead the visitor to contemplate the unimaginable hardships of the arctic conditions.
The history and myths lead on to a more scientific section, a kind of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) breaking down of facts and theories of the crew’s likely causes of death. Objects help examine hypothesis of death by cannibalism, botulism, and even lead poisoning from the lead solder used to seal the food tins. I like this section, it is a great way to introduce older children to thinking critically about evidence and not to take information for granted.
The depth of the NMM collections allows science to be placed on one side and the art and romanticism of arctic exploration to be viewed on another, with walls adorned with large scale re-imaginings of Franklin’s last moments. You can see how the public would have kept being reminded of their idealised self-sacrifice. Perhaps also a way to lead the public away from scandalous evidence of cannibalism that shocked the mid 19th century population to such an extent that even Charles Dickens himself felt the need to refute such appalling slurs on the British character.
“No man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin’s gallant band were not set upon and slain by Inuit themselves.” Charles Dickens, Household Words, 2 December 1854
[Rae’s reports reached London claiming Inuit accounts of cannibalism, Dickens reflecting racist attitudes of his time, he attacked the Inuit without first-hand knowledge of their culture].
But it is the final section of the exhibition that takes the story to a whole new level with the realisation that it is not a tale that is finished and closed but in reality one that is just beginning to be rediscovered. In 2014 the wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered lying in just 10 metres of water, and the wreck of HMS Terror was found in 2016 by Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team.
The cold water has perfectly preserved the ships and their contents and the amazing film footage, photographs and objects are the frozen time capsule that allow us to get even closer to Franklin and his lost men. 65 artefacts have been recovered from Erebus and 35 are on display many for the very first time, including the ship’s bell straight from conservation and bearing the fateful year of 1845.
There is a wonderfully simple glass medicine bottle on display, moulded on the side is the word London. Actually an early example of recycling, it was found with shot and buckshot inside. But what is really remarkable about the bottle is how you can use the interactive screen next to the display to not only see exactly where on a 3D scan of the ship that it had found, but also see images of how the bottle was first discovered just lying in view under the water. It is a remarkable way to show this small glass bottle’s journey from London, to under the Arctic seas and back to London again.
The head of a boarding pike, boarding pikes served as tent poles for the three small tents at the Camp Felix Camp.
As I walk round the exhibition I am captivated by the story and the objects, but there are three little objects that speak to me on a completely different level. Firstly I notice the head of a boarding pike collected on 25 May 1859 from Cape Felix, King William Island by Hobson and McClintock. There is a small section of wood, a boat keel, also collected in 1859, from Boat Place Erebus Bay by McClintock. Sticking out of the wood is a small nail, I notice it because it reminds of a nail I worked on in the archives at the Museum of London. The boarding pike, again similar to one I have handled and photographed. But it is the ship’s bell that really captures my attention when the curator mentions the arrow imprinted on the side which confirms it was the property of the British Navy. I have pondered over a similar arrow on a large iron boat nail I have been working on. All the objects I am reminded of were from the Thames Foreshore, discovered by mudlarkers in the 1980s. You can see their photographs on the Museum of London collections online web site.
Perhaps my boat nail also belonged to the British Navy? What these little objects do for me is connect the frozen shores and hardships I can’t begin to imagine, to the banks of the Thames and the mud of the foreshore. HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from London, their loved ones no doubt waved them off perhaps fearing they would never see them again but never dreaming over 160 years later we would be looking at their clay pipes and leather boots. It makes me think of those men from all over the country, from Chatham, Manchester, Liverpool and Shetland, whose faces are gone but whose objects and possessions leave a permanent reminder.
‘Death in the Ice’ is a remarkable exhibition, a fascinating story and amazing objects that I can’t recommend highly enough. There are so many levels to discover and so much to learn. With more dives planned in the future on HMS Terror and Erebus, there will be more stories to come out of the continually evolving story of Franklin’s legacy and the sacrifice of his 128 man crew. I for one will be eagerly waiting to hear more.
Death in the Ice: The shocking story of Franklin’s final expedition is on at the National Maritime Museum and runs from 14 July 2017- 7 January 2018
To find out more about the expedition and ticket prices please see the National Maritime Museum website. http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/franklin-death-in-the-ice