Unraveling An Enduring Arctic Mystery

New exhibition at Mystic Seaport Museum explores what happened to the Franklin Expedition, two ships and 129 men that disappeared in the Arctic in 1845.

The Franklin Expedition is a tragic story of Arctic exploration and death and one of the most enduring mysteries of maritime history – a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition will display more than 200 objects from the collections of the National Maritime Museum in London (NMM) and the Canadian Museum of History (CMH), alongside finds recovered by Parks Canada from Franklin’s ship HMS Erebus. The artifacts from Erebus – the vessel was discovered under water in 2014 – will be on show for the first time in the United States. The exhibition promises to advance our understanding of the expedition and the fate of Franklin and his men. Death in the Ice will also explore both the Eu­ropean and Inuit perspectives, including the importance of the Inuit to those searching for the remains of the expedition.

“We are very pleased to be presenting this compelling and mystifying story, which has had a hold on the imaginations of so many since the ships disappeared into the Arctic,” said Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport Museum. “We are particularly pleased to highlight the critical role Inuit have played in the Franklin story, from the years immediately following the expedition’s loss to the recent discoveries of the ships. Though much of what happened to the expedition remains a mystery, what we do know is largely thanks to Inuit oral history and underwater archaeology.”

Setting sail from London on May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and his 128-man crew, aboard Erebus and Terror, were the British nation’s biggest hope of finally traversing the Northwest Passage – the much desired, possibly faster, trade route from Europe to Asia.

30 years of clues

Franklin and his men were last seen in Baffin Bay in July 1845. Two years would pass with nothing heard from the men, prompting the first of a series of expeditions to be sent into the Arctic in an attempt to find them and the reasons why they had not been in touch with the Admiralty or loved ones at home. Over the course of the next 30 years, news and relics, such as snow goggles, cutlery, and a portable stove – examples of which can be seen in Death in the Ice – filtered back out of the Arctic and spoke to what had happened: the deaths of the entire crew through a combination of factors including scurvy and starvation, speculation of cannibalism, and potential madness brought on by lead poisoning. It was not until 1859 that a sole piece of paper, often known as the Victory Point Note (and on display as part of the exhibition), was found and revealed anything about what happened, including the date of Sir John Franklin’s death – June 11, 1847.

However, ErebusTerror, and the bodies of Franklin and most of his crew were still nowhere to be found (three bodies were found buried on Beechey Island and two skeletons were returned to Britain during the 19th century).

That was until 2014, when the wreck of Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada, as part of a multi-faceted partnership that included government, private, and non-profit groups. This was followed by the discovery of Terror in 2016, marking two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. As Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team begins 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. Furthermore, finds from Erebus itself will be on display, including the ship’s bell.

The role of the Inuit

The exhibition will emphasize 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 artifacts, including some incorporating materials of European origin that were traded from explorers or retrieved from abandoned ships, will also be on display in the exhibition, highlighting the interactions between the search expeditions and the Inuit.

Also featured will be the work of Dr. Owen Beattie of the Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project, who has used forensic techniques to examine human remains recovered from Beechey Island. Examination of tissues collected from the men’s bodies 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.

In conjunction with new research from Parks Canada and the collections of CMH and NMM, the exhibition will further understanding of the expedition and reveal what life was like for the men aboard the ships, explore the Victorian obsession with the Arctic, and seek to answer questions about what exactly may have happened to those men on their fateful journey to chart the Northwest Passage all those years ago.

The exhibition will run December 1, 2018-April 28, 2019, in the Collins Gallery of the Thompson Exhibition Building.

Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition is a traveling exhibition developed by the Canadian Mu­seum of History (Gatineau, Canada), in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum (Lon­don, UK), and in collaboration with the Govern­ment of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.