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Death in the Ice: National Maritime Museum tells story of Franklin’s final expedition

a photo of a pair of old goggles with wire mesh lenses

Relic snow goggles from the Franklin expedition. ® National Maritime Museum, London

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich explores the mysterious disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845

When they set sail from the Thames on 19 May 1845, Sir John Franklin and his crew aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were Britain’s biggest hope of finally traversing the North-West Passage – the much vaunted sea route from Europe to Asia that was thought to enable easier worldwide trade for the British Empire.

However, after Franklin and his 128-man crew left Baffin Bay in the North Atlantic Ocean off Greenland in July 1845, nothing more was heard of them.

Two years passed and the first of a series of expeditions were despatched to the Arctic to find out what had become of the well decorated and travelled 59-year-old Franklin and his men.

Urged by Lady Jane Franklin, Parliament and the British press, the Admiralty dispatched expeditions both overland and by sea. By 1850 there were still no clues to the fate of the crew so the British Government, after much criticism, offered substantial rewards of £20,000 to any parties who could provide news of the expedition or assist its crew.

Thirty years passed. Relics from the expedition – such as boots and tin cans – began to emerge, fuelling public speculation varying from scurvy to madness and cannibalism, but the truth of what had really happened on the expedition remained a mystery.

a dramtic painting sjhowing men freezing to death on a small boat trapped in a wasteland of ice

They forged the last links with their lives’_ Sir John Franklin’s men dying by their boat during the North-West Passage expedition. ® National Maritime Museum, London

a photo of an old worn leather boot

Seaboot from Starvation Bay: Relic of Sir John Franklins last expedition 1845-48. ® National Maritime Museum London.

a photo of a cross medal with central motif of a white horse

Royal Hanovarian Guelphic Order, 2nd class: Relic of Sir John Franklins last expedition 1845-48. ® National Maritime Museum, London

The National Maritime Museum returns to this fascinating story with Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition, an exhibition that reveals the facts of the expedition and explores the Victorian fascination with the Arctic via a collection of evocative objects including artworks, tin cans, snow goggles, cutlery, boots and other moving personal effects recovered over the last century.

Some of the first clues surfaced in 1859 via a sole piece of paper, often known as the Victory Point Note (on display as part of the exhibition), which revealed some scant indications about what happened, including the date of Sir John Franklin’s death – 11th June, 1847.

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

What actually befell Sir John Franklin and his crew was only to become clearer over a century later.

Franklin letter with handwritten notes over a foxed and faded form with official writing on it

Victory Point Note. ® National Maritime Museum London

a printed postcard of a man with a bald head in naval uniform

Sir John Franklin Capt. R.N. John Franklin.

a photo of an old fob watch with no glass or hands

Pocket chronometer found in Erebus Bay. ® National Maritime Museum London

In 1981 forensic anthropologist Dr Owen Beattie launched the 1845–48 Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project (FEFAP) by looking at the relics and human remains overlooked by earlier searchers on sites on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

The human remains were analysed using modern forensic techniques. Beattie’s research 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.

Beattie later returned to Beechey Island, where he and a specialized team exhumed and autopsied three remarkably well-preserved crewmen who had died and were buried during the expedition’s first winter in the Arctic.

The expedition, which yielded some dramatic imagery of the preserved Victorian bodies, allowed an examination of tissues collected from the men’s mummified remains and reaffirmed Beattie’s earlier theory that lead poisoning was one of the factors leading to the expedition’s destruction.

It is believed the Expedition’s tinned food, hailed as cutting edge technology and stocked in abundance, had been contaminated by the lead solder used to seal the tins.

a photo of an old tin can with the remains of a label on its side

Tin: Relic of Sir John Franklins last expedition 1845-48. ® National Maritime Museum, London

a painting of a ship moored next to icebergs

HMS Erebus in the Ice. ® National Maritime Museum London

Snow goggles with blue lenses: Relic of Sir John Franklins last expedition 1845-48. ® National Maritime Museum, London

The question of what actually became of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror remained unanswered until 2014, when the wreck of Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada followed by the discovery of Terror in 2016.

Death in the Ice includes archaeological finds from these ships, including HMS Erebus’ ship’s bell as well as other 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.

The significant role of Inuit in uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition is also explored via 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, highlighting the interactions between the search expeditions and the Inuit.

Objects from the National Maritime Museum’s own collections and those of the Canadian Museum of History are brought together alongside a forensic tent allowing visitors to explore scientific evidence and answer questions about what exactly may have happened to the 129 men who sailed out of Victorian England more than 170 years ago.

a photo of a crudely made htachet style knife comsisting of metal and bone

Ulu (Inuit knife) ® National Maritime Museum, London

a photo of a diver searching a wreck of timbers and cannon

Cannons and loose timbers on the starboard stern. Diver Filippo Ronca taking measurements at the muzzle.® Thierry Boyer / Parks Canada

The exhibition was developed by the Canadian Museum of History in partnership with the National Maritime Museum and Parks Canada in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich from July 14 2017 – January 7 2018. Call 020 8858 4422 / or visit www.rmg.co.uk/franklin


The National Maritime Museum is the world’s largest maritime museum with 10 free galleries and a vast collection that spans artworks, maps and charts, memorabilia and thousands of other objects.


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