Monday, 7 August 2017

Death in the ice

The National Maritime Museum dressed up for the occasion


Death in the ice - a personal review 

 About four weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be at the opening of the "Death in the ice" exhibition in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and in the end went to see it four times in a row, only to be cut off because I had to return home. With this post I would like to share some of my personal impressions of that marvellous exhibition. Unfortunately the National Maritime Museum does not allow photographs to be taken in the special exhibitions, so all photos were taken by me in the museum in previous years. 
Poster in the Greenwich DLR station
The first thing you notice when you enter the exhibition is that it's dark, setting the mood for "The shocking story of Franklin's final expedition" as the museum subtitled it or, as an exhibition guide put it, "This is not supposed to be a laughing matter".  Quite!

Upon entering the exhibition I couldn't help to think about the first time Franklin Expedition artefacts, bought from Inuit by John Rae, were exhibited in the Royal Naval Hospital in 1854 and that I now was to witness another "first" as the new "relics" gathered from Erebus had never before been shown outside Canada and would now join those so many had seen before, exhibited in the Maritime Museum's Sammy Ofer Wing, just a few meters away from the Old Hospital. I wondered how different from then these relics are now perceived. Are they still regarded as such, testament to the bravery, scientific zeal and ultimate sacrifice of men who "forged the last link with their lives"? Or are these rusted, weathered, sometimes barely recognizable artefacts more looked at as evidence of failure, white man's arrogance and stupidity of entering a hostile environment armed with carpet slippers, bibles and solid silver cutlery? This exhibition will give you all the tools to come to your own conclusions, but it will not provide the answer. You have to find out for yourself.

The first exhibit you see (apart from a map of the Northwest Passage) is a rather mundane one. I had expected a bust of Sir John Franklin or a larger than life portrait but what is singled out instead is a shoe. Or rather a boot with the upper part collapsed into the lower as the description explains. It is bathed in blue light and placed in front of a large projection of an inside shot of Erebus, probably simulating where that boot had been found. We also learn from the description that it has a rubber sole (quite state-of-the-art) and was lined with seal skin for additional warmth.  "Fur on the inside" I thought, remembering descriptions by early explorers of Inuit boots which always had the warm fur layer facing the skin. This similarity for me sat the perfect stage for the next part of the exhibition that shows how much the lives of Inuit and Franklin's men touched each other even in later years.

Sir John Franklin's Guelphic Order, purchased from Inuit by John Rae in 1854
Inuit oral history has played a pivotal part in discovering the fate of the Franklin Expedition and both of Franklin's ships. HMS Terror, Francis Crozier's command, was found solely because of evidence given by MCpl. Sammy Kogvik of the Gjoa Haven Ranger Patrol. I was so fortunate to be passed by him and his colleague in uniform in the exhibition but didn't have the opportunity to talk to him. Even before you enter that section, Louie Kamookak's deep voice is easily recognizable, narrating a story he heard from his grandmother about the white men. There are two or three other listening stations with short accounts in Inuktitut and English. There are also two genuine Inuit outfits, fascinating wooden maps, and a vivid portrait of an Inuit woman from Labrador, her face exquisitely tattooed, who was painted for Joseph Banks in 1769. The most interesting exhibit for me was a showcase that compared Inuit tools and weapons with and without material recovered from the expedition and repurposed for Inuit use. After a large screen with a changing arctic landscape you will enter the next section.

A Goldner tin and a spoon belonging to Sir John Franklin
At the beginning of that part of the exhibition, you encounter the     simulated hull of Erebus and Terror from the surface of the ice to the bulwark as it must have appeared to someone approaching one of the ships on foot. Very impressive. There is also a noticeable colour change from black to brown which I associated with the unpainted parts inside the ships. Reliefs on the right hand side show the dimensions of the cabins and their interior. There is also earthenware from the ships in the three designs that were found up to now (Blue Willow, Whampoa Pagoda and a bowl with what looks like willow branches but in a more graphic design without the landscape).  I later learned from Karen Ryan, the curator in charge of the exhibition from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, that the width of the room corresponds with the width of the ships and the two computer animated tables in that section are of the same dimension as the ones in the great cabin. One of these tables shows a map visualizing the history of arctic exploration, the other a changing display of normal every-day shipboard activities happening on that table throughout the day as journal writing, course plotting, work on the plant, animal and geological collections , drawing, having dinner and tea and playing cards.

We also learn about the officers and men. Unfortunately the description lets Crozier command Erebus, not Terror, during the Antarctic expedition. His letter to John Henderson is displayed and the watch he gave to William Cunningham, Terror's Sergeant of Marines, after the Antarctic voyage.  There is also a display on James Fitzjames and John Franklin and the daguerreotypes of the other officers. We also see scientific instruments, how the time was passed in the long winters, learn a lot about shipboard life and also the sled excursions which were made waiting for the ice to break up. One big highlight in that section are the paintings of Erebus and Terror and two models, a contemporary one of Erebus and the beautiful, immensely detailed and skilfully built one of Terror, which I was so fortunate to see together with Ship Modeler, who made it and whose fascinating blog "Building HMS Terror" can be found here.  At the end of that section there is another of the big projection walls, showing a time lapse of a solid ice field during 24 hours of midnight sun, a remainder of the "year without summer" that sealed the fate of the expedition.

sledge flag by Lady Franklin, photographed 2014 
The next small section is dedicated to the families of the men. Waiting, hoping, fearing and in the end grieving. I also learned from Karen Ryan that the maroon walls mirror the interior in a Victorian drawing room as Lady Franklin might have sat in while composing the letter to her missing husband that is displayed on the wall. It is read in a continuous loop by a very ladylike voice which might just be as Lady Franklin has sounded. On the other wall is one of the latest acquisition by the National Maritime Museum, a heartrending letter from the parents of Terror's cook John Diggle with its simple, touching words but then all hope being crushed by the "returned to the sender" stamp.  Beside is a sledge flag Jane Franklin made for Bedford Pim, who went to search for Franklin but found McClure instead. It shows a fouled anchor on blue background and the motto "Hope on, hope ever" deriving from a popular hymn from that time.
After the sad warmth of the Victorian home of the bereaved we enter a world of ice. The displays are now white and show a wide array of relics from Franklin's own expedition but also from others in search of him. A  pole from Beechey Island with a painted hand pointing nowhere appears as lost as the men it once showed the way – most likely to the warmth and security of their ships. There is also a lightweight sledge, a sock from one of the search expeditions, the public announcement that  all men of the Franklin expedition would be declared dead on March 31, 1854, if no-one comes forward with new information and some of the silver cutlery once owned by the officers and then repossessed and marked with the initials of ordinary sailors. To my big disappointment none of Crozier's cutlery is there and details of the ones on display are sometimes hard to see. The same applies to the Victory Point Record, so far the expedition's last life sign. The spots on it are dark and the writing very faint. Of course it has to be protected, but the light comes from above so when you bend forward to have a closer look, you cast a shadow on what you want to see. That problem I encountered a couple of times. I would have preferred another lighting solution and to put enlarged facsimiles next to some of the original documents.
I later learned from Claire Warrior (Senior Exhibition Interpretation Curator of the NMM) that one of Crozier's cutlery is at present on display in Canada House in London. 

Also in the white, icy section of the exhibition is a portioned-off room with an instalment showing John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine, the three sailors buried at Beechey Island, life-size as they appeared in their coffins during the exhumation by Owen Beattie and John Geiger. Displayed with each of them is a piece of original cloth from their coffins like a shirt cuff from Hartnell, Braine's head scarf and a cotton strip that once held Torrington's limbs in place.
The next section deals with the different theories of why all the men died. The explanations of diseases as scurvy, botulism, lead poisoning, and others are easy to understand. The pros and cons of each theory are equally presented and no conclusion is drawn.  It ends with explaining the cut marks pointing to cannibalism and the medicine chest found by McClintock at Victory Point.

"They forged the last link with their lives" by William Thomas Smith - one of the impressive paintings in the exhibition
The next part is telling the tale of the finding of the ships, showing pivotal artefacts and a model of HMS Erebus as it appears today including a little Parks Canada diver discovering a miniscule bell. After a continuous screening of Ryan Harris's ground breaking live talk from Erebus from April 2015 (still a treat to watch) Erebus's bell is displayed in a single showcase that can be circled. The bell is beautifully illuminated, a stiking sight and to me the emotional highlight of the exhibition. It is the original bell. I asked several people from Parks Canada and both museums and they all told me the same. It's the real deal. No 3D-printed imitation. The genuine heart and voice of Erebus, Did they ring it a last time before the ship was abandoned for good? Did it toll when she sank? It's hard to finally tear oneself away from it, so captivating is the sight. It is a large bell.  

The exhibition ends with some selected iconic items. The two silk gloves left on Beechey, the beaded purse looking so tiny, Lt. Fairholme's cutlery as it is a new acquisition of the Canadian Museum of History and a watch cover that is engraved with James Reid's name.

exhibition shop loot :-)
The exhibition shop provides many of the must-have Franklin reads like Russell Potter's "Finding Franklin", John Geiger's "Frozen in Time", Ken McGoogan's "Lady Franklin's Revenge", David Woodman's "Unravelling the Franklin Mystery" and also the wonderful compact exhibition guide by Karen Ryan, easily affordable at 5 Pounds and the well-researched "Sir John Franklin's Erebus and Terror Expedition" by Gillian Hutchinson which is beautifully illustrated and provides a comprehensive companion of the exhibition. The merchandise is mostly build on Lady Franklins sledge flag. I bought some of the souvenirs shown here.. 

In my opinion the most moving tribute to the Franklin Expedition is located outside the museum on the lawn close to the main entrance. 129 flags bearing Lady Franklin's design are representing every single member of the expedition. Despite of their seeming uniformity wandering between the flags, reading the name, age, function and hometown of the men, let them become individuals, people who set sail full of hope and optimism just a little bit down the river from the museum only to meet their fate in one of the most hostile regions on this planet. The Franklin Expedition were 129 men who well deserve to be remembered in this splendid exhibition.

"Death in the ice" closes in Greenwich on January 7, 2018, before it moves to Gatineau, Quebeq, Canada, to open there on March 2, 2018. 

the memorial
Francis Crozier's flag
Death in the ice - National Maritime Museum
The Franklin Exhibition - Canadian Museum of History


  1. Actually, carpet slippers are very convenient in camp, after you've taken off the heavy boots you've worn all day, even in the Arctic, at least in summer. It takes just a few seconds to slip them on, whereas with boots, you need to sit down and lace them up.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Randall. :-) I was just repeating some of the arguments I read before and it sounded good in that sentence. ;-)

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