When: 14th July 2017 – 7th January 2018
Where: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
£: Tickets cost £12 for adults, £11 for concessions and £7 for children
What is it?
From Friday 14th July, the National Maritime Museum (NMM) will host a major exhibition, exploring the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew on their final expedition; a mystery that still remains unsolved today.
The Death in the Ice exhibition has been developed by the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) in partnership with the NMM and Parks Canada, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.
The exhibition will feature more than 200 objects on display from the collections of the NMM and the CMH, alongside finds from HMS Erebus, whose resting place was only discovered in 2014. The exhibition promises to advance our understanding of the expedition, to reveal the Victorian fascination with the Arctic, and to begin to answer questions about what happened to those men on their fateful journey.
Setting sail from the Thames on 19th May 1845, Sir John Franklin and his crew, aboard HMS Erebus and Terror, were the British nation’s biggest hope of finally traversing the whole of the North-West Passage. A hope that Britain believed with near certainty was about to be realised by the largest expedition the nation had ever sent to the Arctic region, under the leadership of the well-travelled, 59-year-old Franklin.
However, July 1845 in Baffin Bay was to be the last time Europeans saw Franklin and his 128-man crew, as HMS Erebus and Terror sailed toward their goal of finally charting the remainder of the North-West Passage. Two years passed and nothing had been heard from the men, prompting a series of expeditions to be sent into the Arctic in an attempt to find them. Between 1847 and 1880, more than thirty expeditions ventured to the Arctic, in the hopes of uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition.
By 1850, there were still no clues to the fate of the crew, and the British Government offered substantial rewards to parties who could provide news of the expedition. Over the next thirty years, news and relics, such as tin cans, snow goggles and cutlery – examples of which can be seen in Death in the Ice – filtered back to Britain. Were the deaths of the crew through a combination of factors including scurvy and starvation; cannibalism, or madness brought on by lead poisoning?
It was not until 1859 that the sole piece of paper, often known as the Victory Point Note (and on display in the exhibition), was found to reveal anything about what happened, including the date of Sir John Franklin’s death; 11th June 1847.
It was over 100 years after the last search expedition that investigation into the fate of the Franklin expedition garnered public attention; when forensic anthropologist, Dr Owen Beattie began the Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project (FEFAP).
Relics and human remains, overlooked by earlier searches, were collected in 1981 by Beattie’s team from sites on King William Island. The human remains were analysed using modern forensic techniques in an attempt to ascertain what might have caused the death of the crew and to identify the remains. Through Beattie’s research it was found that the amount of lead in the bones of some of the men that had been found was exponentially high, leading to the theory that lead poisoning may have been one of the factors contributing to the Expedition’s demise.
Visitors to Death in the Ice will get a chance to step into a forensic tent for themselves, and explore the evidence and theories put forward of what caused the deaths of the crew.
Beattie’s research renewed interest in the mysterious fate of Franklin and his crew, but the question of what happened to HMS Erebus and Terror, remained unanswered. That was until 2014, when the wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada, followed by the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016, marking two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history.
As Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team begin to bring to light the ships and their contents, Death in the Ice will see objects relating to the expedition and the subsequent search parties, including personal items, clothing, and components of the ship, displayed in Britain for the first time in over 170 years. Furthermore, finds from HMS Erebus itself will be on display, many for the very first time since their recovery, including the ship’s bell.
The exhibition will emphasise the significant role of Inuit in uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition, showcasing Inuit oral histories relating to the European exploration of the Arctic Archipelago. Numerous Inuit artefacts, including some incorporating materials of European origin, which were traded from explorers or retrieved from abandoned ships, will also be on display in the exhibition.