Typical of many museums, the Canadian Museum of Nature has tucked away in its storage areas some collections that are little known by the public, and often come as a surprise to members of the museum staff as well.
Having a background in both archaeology and palaeontology, one of my duties at the museum is to manage an archaeological collection that we are temporarily curating on behalf of the territory of Nunavut. Few are aware of this arrangement, but I suspect that is soon to change.
With the recent discovery of one of the Franklin Expedition ships making headlines across the country and the world, the Nunavut Archaeology Collection at the museum has been provided the perfect opportunity to make its public debut.
With the permission of the Government of Nunavut, we opened a small display in our museum this week that highlights objects from the archaeology collection associated with the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.
This undertaking of the British Royal Navy began in May of 1845 with the launch of two vessels—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—from Greenhithe, England, and ended tragically in 1848 in what is now Nunavut with the abandonment of the icebound ships off the west coast of King William Island and the eventual loss of the entire crew.
The tale of these polar explorers, who were seeking the final set of seaways constituting the Northwest Passage under the command of Sir John Franklin (1786–1847), has long captivated those interested in the history of Arctic exploration.
The lost Franklin Expedition is regarded by many as an important and fascinating episode in the history of Canada as well, capturing attention for its sense of mystery and chronicles of human struggle against cold, disease, lead poisoning and starvation. A host of questions surrounds the expedition: Where are the ships? What happened to the crew once the ships were abandoned? Where is Franklin buried? What was the cause of their lead poisoning? Did they indeed resort to cannibalism?
Last month’s announcement that the remains of HMS Erebus were located in the waters of Queen Maud Gulf at least partially answers the first question posed above. The others have been examined by various scientists and historians, who greatly rely on the archaeological evidence to guide their investigations. The conclusions drawn shed much light on the likely fate of the crew, but also raise additional questions and uncertainties.
The mysteries of Franklin’s last Arctic foray may be explored in the remounted and expanded version of the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s (CTSM) exhibition Echoes in the Ice: Finding Franklin’s Ship, which tells the story behind the mission, its failure and the long history of searching for clues regarding the crew’s fate.
Two cases of artifacts on display at the Museum of Nature complement the CSTM exhibition, showing some of the objects left behind by crew members.
I invite you to stop by the Canadian Museum of Nature for a more intimate look at the experience of the stranded men as told through their personal items and equipment, and I hope the pictures I have included here will entice you into doing just that.