Understanding Sir John Franklin, Then and Now

The Canadian Museum of Nature is the officially designated repository for archaeological material recovered from Nunavut. As the manager of the growing archaeology collection, I am greatly looking forward to the lecture at the museum on October 8, 2015, by underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris. He was a member of the Parks Canada team that located the remains of the HMS Erebus on the floor of Queen Maud Gulf in the Canadian Arctic in September 2014. Also speaking will be Caitlyn Baikie, a young Inuk who was on the expedition.

A dozen old photographs in a display case.

Photographs of some of the officers of Franklin’s 1845 expedition. These are reproductions of daguerreotypes taken in London just before departure.
Sir John Franklin’s photo is at upper left. The man to the right is James Fitzjames, the captain of the HMS Erebus. The photos were exhibited at The Polar Museum. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

The Erebus was the flagship of Sir John Franklin’s fabled 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage—one of two vessels lost to the ice and cold of the Arctic along with their entire crew.

A biscuit and a canister in a display case.

Search parties looking for Franklin and his men often left caches of food and supplies in their wake, holding out hope that survivors would come across them.
The Polar Museum has a number of examples of such supplies, including the hardtack, or ship’s biscuit, stamped with the pheon or broad arrow of the Royal Navy shown above and left on Somerset Island in 1848 by Sir James Clark Ross.
The canister above contains pemmican, a mixture of dried beef and lard, and was prepared for the 1847–1849 British Overland Franklin Search Expedition. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

In my excitement to learn more about the Government of Canada’s efforts to recover objects from the Erebus and the ongoing search to find her sister ship, the HMS Terror, I thought I would share some photos and thoughts from my recent visit to some British museums with exhibitions about Franklin and his final Arctic voyage.

While in England this September to attend a conference, I took the opportunity to visit both the National Maritime Museum in the London borough of Greenwich and The Polar Museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. These institutions hold significant collections of documents, equipment and photographs relating to Sir John Franklin and his Arctic voyages (he had visited the Arctic three times prior to the 1845 expedition, twice before having been in Canadian Arctic territory), and the objects that I saw on display set me to pondering the cultural and historical impact of Franklin’s fateful final journey.

A metal and wood tool.

Inuit snow knife constructed of materials salvaged from either the Erebus or the Terror following their abandonment. The handle is formed from part of a chair leg. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

Two porcelain figurines.

Decorative figurines of Sir John and Lady Franklin in the National Maritime Museum. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

At the National Maritime Museum, I was disappointed to discover that the old Explorers Gallery—which included an entire section devoted to Franklin—had just recently been permanently closed. An exhibit case in a hall near the main entrance, however, still had a small collection of Franklin-related objects on display. These artifacts were incorporated into an exhibition whose theme is emotion, particularly the emotions that one might experience in relation to maritime history and the exploration of the oceans. The Franklin material was chosen to represent love—not the emotion I believe most people would initially come up with when thinking of Franklin’s lost expedition.

Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, however, was tireless in her efforts to support searches for her missing husband, and it is her devotion, determination and hope that earned the Franklin story a place in the display as a focus for love.

The framed flag hanging on a wall.

This flag was embroidered by Lady Jane Franklin and given to one of the search missions sent to the Canadian Arctic in the hope of finding Sir John Franklin and his crew alive. This is the final object one sees upon passing by the Franklin display. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

This unexpected categorization of the Franklin expedition prompted me to think about the many views and reactions concerning Franklin, a man whose life, even in his own day, was one of certain contrasts.

A medal in a display case.

John Franklin was appointed to the knighthood as a Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order. The National Maritime Museum displays the star awarded to Franklin upon receiving this title in 1836, which he brought with him on his 1845 voyage, the medal subsequently having been obtained from the Inuit hunters who recovered it. Image: Greg Huyer © Greg Huyer

As governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), he was politically considered to have been a poor bureaucrat and leader, and yet the people of the island respected both him and his wife for their charity and attempts to reform the governance of the penal colony. In the years following his disappearance, many saw Franklin as a symbol of bravery and heroism, and yet some came to regard his story as a tale of hubris and failure. In the 21st century, the final Franklin expedition is often framed as one of adventure and mystery.

For me, the various facets of Sir John Franklin’s life and the cultural mythos built around it all in their own way capture a part of the picture.

Why don’t you come out and join us on October 8 at the museum to find out which emotions and thoughts come to the forefront for you?

This entry was posted in Arctic, Collections, Exhibitions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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