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Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

Mystery in the Arctic: Canadian Museum of History explores the doomed Franklin Expedition

By Danny Globerman on March 12, 2018

Photos by @globerman

Just inside the Canadian Museum of History’s new exhibition Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition is a large photograph of the man at the centre of the story. An early daguerreotype, the image of Sir John Franklin is grainy and somewhat blurred, his eyes shrouded in dark shadows.

It’s an image of Franklin that fails to reveal all, a fitting portrait in that it’s not unlike his most famous journey: a tenacious nautical mystery that more than 170 years later still clings to its secrets.

The ship’s bell was the first artifact recovered from the HMS Erebus. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

Death in the Ice is the most comprehensive exhibition yet about Franklin’s doomed hunt for the last remaining portion of the Northwest Passage, a coveted shortcut for ships trading between Europe and Asia. It was developed by the museum in partnership with Parks Canada and Britain’s National Maritime Museum (where the exhibition was first presented prior to its arrival here) and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust. Though planning started before the discovery of Franklin’s two ships, finding the HMS Erebus in September 2014 and the HMS Terror two years later gave the show new currency.

Putting a human face on the story

With the help of more than 200 artifacts, including 25 recovered from the Erebus, as well as maps, audio testimonies, videos, and more, the exhibit tells the story of the expedition from its start to the present day, exploring what we know and the many questions that remain. A big part of that effort involves putting a human face on the story. The names of all of the men are listed and artifacts such as gloves, a shoe and dinner plates all make the point these were lives that were lived and lost.

This shoe was recovered from the lower deck of the HMS Erebus near the officers’ cabins. Seal fur had been inserted for additional warmth. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

“They were real human beings,” says Karen Ryan, the exhibition’s curator. “They had names and faces, they wrote letters to their friends and families, they had hopes, and a lot of them died horribly. It’s real.”

When Franklin set sail from England in May 1845, it was the Royal Navy’s largest expedition to the frigid Arctic. It would also be the deadliest; an abject failure in which hardship descended into unspeakable desperation that included cannibalism, and ended with the deaths of every one of the 129 men on board the two vessels.

“They had names and faces, they wrote letters to their friends and families, they had hopes, and a lot of them died horribly. It’s real.”

When nothing was heard from the ships two years after their departure, more than 30 expeditions over the next 33 years ventured into the Arctic to find the men, all without success.

There was, however, a major discovery in 1859. Tucked below a stone cairn on King William Island, searchers found a tin cylinder containing a hand-written message dated April 25, 1848. The Victoria Point Note, as it is known (back in Canada for the first time as part of this exhibition), revealed key information: the ships had been stuck in the ice off the northern tip of the island since September 1846; Franklin had died in June of the following year; and 24 men in all had died with the 105 survivors abandoning the ships April 22, 1848 to trek south to the mainland.

Inuit contribution invaluable

Beyond that note, so much of what else is known about the expedition is primarily thanks to the Inuit and Death in the Ice makes sure to highlight that fact. Inuit hunters witnessed the ships and the men at various times on King William Island, sharing what they saw with British searchers in the following years, but also passing the stories along from generation to generation.

“I remember sitting around the table just after the discovery,” recalls Marc-André Bernier, the underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada who is leading the search of the submerged vessels. “We were talking about, ‘what are the messages we want people to remember?’ and one of them is the Inuit were right. For those who were doubting the value of oral history or traditional knowledge, this shows they’re extremely rich and accurate and to be trusted.”

An Inuit carving of a ship common during the 1500s and 1600s indicates Inuit contact with European explorers during those times. The carving was discovered at an archaeological site on Baffin Island. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

“The Inuit were right. For those who were doubting the value of oral history or traditional knowledge, this shows they’re extremely rich and accurate and to be trusted.”

Inuit knowledge was also critical in the discovery of the ships. When a Parks Canada-led team finally found the submerged wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror, it was with state-of-the-art sonar. But the technology would have been of little use if not for the sightings and collective memory of the Inuit.

“The Erebus, the first of the two discoveries was found over 150 kilometres from the abandonment point,” says Bernier. “Had it not been for the Inuit knowledge, we would have never searched in that area, it was so far away it did not make sense for the ships to get there. Nobody would have looked there if not for the Inuit.”

New answers raise new questions

All of which raises another mystery: given both ships were found nowhere near the spot where they were apparently abandoned, how did they reach their final resting places? Did someone pilot them? And when and where did the various men die, and what killed them? Starvation, disease, hypothermia, lead poisoning? All could have played a part.

The Canadian Museum of History’s Karen Ryan has been the driving force behind the exhibition and is its curator. Photo: Danny Globerman/Apt613.

”On those ships potentially we could have sick books,” says Ryan. “They could tell you exactly how people were dying, who died, which is important for the descendants. Also, there could be the log books, the day-to-day decisions, why they took the routes they took.”

The hope remains that those sick books and logs might still be recovered as divers continue the hard work of exploring and retrieving items from the Erebus (work on the Terror which is better preserved but much farther beneath the surface has yet to begin). Years of underwater archaeology, restoration and analysis lie ahead, ensuring that, even after all these years, the mystery enveloping Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage isn’t about to give up its secrets just yet.


Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition runs until Sept. 30 at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau.