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.

A piece of bone with an array of holes for bristles.
Artifact NgLj-2:358, the head of a toothbrush made of animal bone. The holes would have once anchored boar-hair bristles. This object and all the others shown here were found in 1992 at a site on King William Island, Nunavut. Several crew members took shelter at this site, at least 11 of whom also perished there. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A white button with four holes and a dark metal button.
Two buttons, the one on the left (NgLj-2:351b) made of bone and the one on the right (NgLj-2:376) a gilt metal button from an officer’s uniform. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

Pen-knife fragments.
Fragment of the handle of a pen knife consisting of bone and the metal side scale that once supported the blade (NgLj-2:387). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A cracked and worn pipe bowl.
Bowl of a wooden tobacco pipe (NgLj-2:329) with traces of white paint still visible. The style of the pipe reflects a form popular in the 1840s and 1850s, and would have been a common possession amongst the crew, who were forbidden to swear or become drunk, but who could still partake in smoking. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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?

A flat piece of leather.
Well-used leather shoe sole with machine-stitched edges (NgLj-2:393). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A length of rope.
Small piece of twisted double-strand rope (NgLj-2:345a), each strand consisting of three yarns. This construction is typical of general-purpose rope that would have been used for a variety of purposes, including lashing down tarps and weathercloths. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A rod with a notched end.
Wood fragment salvaged from objects left at the site by Franklin’s crew and carved by Inuit hunters to serve as a seal indicator (NgLj-2:330a). It would have been fastened to a support and dangled into the water of a hole in the sea ice used by seals for breathing. Nearby hunters would wait and watch the indicator, whose motion would indicate the presence of a surfacing seal. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.