Since September’s discovery of HMS Erebus, believed to be the ship on which Sir John Franklin died, one of our rare books has stepped into the spotlight.

Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21 and 22 was written by Sir John Franklin in 1823, after his first two expeditions in the Arctic.

In October, it made local news and was showcased during the museum’s open house of its research and collections facility.

A damaged book on a table, next to leather binding pieces.
The book by Sir John Franklin, Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21 and 22, before conservation. Published in 1823, after 190 years, it needs some care before it can be exhibited in the museum. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

As you might imagine, leather binding dating back some 190 years requires a little TLC. The book’s cover was detached and slowly deteriorating to powder (red rot); it would not stand up to much more handling without accelerating the deterioration.

A book on a table.
Franklin’s book after conservation. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature
A woman standing near a table on which is an old book.
Conservator Kyla Ubbink, who restored the book. Image: Laura Smyk © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although our rare books are kept in a climate-controlled room and handled with gloves, the preservation of these materials also relies on occasional special treatment. We commissioned Kyla Ubbink, an Ottawa paper conservator, to bring our book back to life.

Treatment was extensive. It included consolidating and treating the red-rotted leather, repairing tears, creases and fraying threads, refolding the maps to fit within the dimensions of the book, flattening the curled-in corners of the cover, surface cleaning and brushing to remove debris and dirt, and other binding repairs. Conservation treatment such as this takes time, glues require time to set and each step is meticulously completed before the next one can begin.

One of the maps unfolded from the book.
The book contains four engraved maps. They had to be folded to fit well inside the book and thus be protected. Image: Kyla Ubbink © Canadian Museum of Nature

Beautifully encased and resting on a brass-accented support, the book can now be seen in the new exhibition Arctic Voices. Our exhibition team anxiously awaited the book’s return after conservation treatment to choose the plate that would be shown. They settled on “View of the Arctic Sea, From the Mouth of the Copper Mine River, Midnight – July 20, 1821”. It was not an easy choice; the plates are all so stunning.

A display case containing a book open to an illustrated page.
You can admire this beautiful illustration from Franklin’s book in the Arctic Voices exhibition until May 3, 2015. Image: Elizabeth Debeljak © Canadian Museum of Nature

Reading passages from the book, I was immediately immersed in a time long ago. The narrative and descriptions of time and place make it an easily consumable read, while the seemingly poetic free-verses add artistic expression in just the right amount.

The text can be found online, but I highly recommend seeing it in person. After Arctic Voices closes on May 3, 2015, you can make an appointment to see it at our library. You may even enjoy some of the other gems of the Rare-Book Collection.