Monday, 16 January 2017




Last weekend I paid a visit to the ROM, and there I came across the Franklin Exploration exhibition. This pop-up display is tucked away in the corner of the entrance of the ROM's Canadian gallery.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Franklin story, here’s some history. In 1845, Sir John Franklin, a member of the British Royal Navy and an experienced global explorer, was tasked with charting the Northwest Passage. At this time, British officials were keen to discover an ocean route to the Pacific via the North American Arctic. Franklin's ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail but never returned. At the encouragement of Lady Franklin, other explorers such as Francis Leopold McClintock and Charles Francis Hall searched for the lost expedition, but had little success. In 2014, the HMS Erebus was finally discovered, and in September 2016 the Terror was found. While there are still questions about what actually happened in the crews’ final days, we can begin to construct some answers. The pop-up display discusses both the past and present explorations of the Franklin expedition.

Sir John Franklin looking pensive. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibit is a double-sided pop-up with two touchscreens and a model of the Erebus shipwreck, and was created in partnership with Parks Canada. Seeing it was a moment of déjà vu for me, as I encountered the same one at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic the last time I was there nearly a year ago. Other museums across Canada are part of the Franklin network, including the Nattilik Heritage Centre in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, close to where the ships were found. This widespread uniform exhibit emphasizes a carefully told national narrative. The Franklin expedition has been adopted as a Canadian story, and the attempts to recover the lost ships are now a part of that history.

In addition to telling the story of the Franklin expedition, the exhibit also focuses on contemporary efforts to uncover evidence of what happened. Videos on the exhibit's touchscreen describe the modern processes involved in finding and recovering the ships. A designated space on the pop-up wall emphasizes that unlocking this story is an ongoing endeavour. The Terror was found only last September, and now holds a space on the pop-up display; when I visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic’s display in January of last year, the Terror was yet to be discovered. I hope that the additional space still left on the display will be filled someday, but some stories will always have gaps.

A space on the pop-up. Photo credit: Sadie MacDonald

One aspect of this exhibition that I appreciated was the emphasis on Inuit perspectives. Inuit involvement in the Franklin story runs deep, as Inuit guides accompanied explorers in search of the lost expedition and provided valuable testimony on the ships’ whereabouts. In 1927, a report by the British Admiralty dismissed Inuit evidence on the Franklin expedition's fate as “not altogether trustworthy.” As the exhibit notes, Inuit oral history on the location of the ships has proven correct. In a video interview, Louie Kamookak, an Inuit historian, notes the efforts of Inuit in uncovering the ships and upholds the importance of oral history. The story of the Franklin expedition shows that oral history deserves more mainstream recognition as valid historical evidence. Museums ought to include more of this perspective in exhibitions, especially when discussing stories and cultures in which oral history plays an important role. The place of Inuit is reflected in the press release for the Franklin Exploration exhibition, which is offered in Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Before the doomed expedition of 1845, Franklin undertook another previous ill-fated Arctic expedition lasting from 1819 to 1822 (it seemed to be a habit for him). During that journey, local Yellowknife leader Akaitcho warned Franklin from attempting to travel during winter, advice which Franklin disregarded. The ensuing expedition ended disastrously, with Franklin’s men resorting to eating their shoe leather and, in one notable case, other humans before being rescued by Akaitcho. Nonetheless, this expedition solidified Franklin’s reputation in British society as a heroic and hardy explorer, “the man who ate his boots”. His final fatal expedition immortalized him for good. While Franklin faces more criticism today, we still seem to find his tragic story of failure romantically captivating.

As I perused the display, other visitors came over in search of the Franklin Exploration exhibit, which they seemed eager to see. I imagine they were not clear as to its being a pop-up display. “That’s it?” a man asked skeptically. “There’s not much here,” said his friend. They didn’t bother to use the touchscreen function. It’s an incident which I think indicates that visitors to a large extent still expect to experience object encounters when in a museum.

A note recovered from the Franklin expedition as shown on the exhibit's touchscreen. Photo credit: Sadie MacDonald

This poses questions regarding the “aura” of objects. People come to a museum and expect to see something real, to bear witness to original objects apparently imbibed with history and meaning. Are pop-up displays like the Franklin Exploration a sufficient alternative? Objects related to the expedition can be viewed and interpreted in the exhibit's interactive touchscreen program. As indicated by my experience, visitors may not have the patience to go through the many pages on the program. While a nerd someone like me who is into museums and the topic of the Franklin expedition was engaged, it wasn’t enough for some visitors. Museums are more than their objects, but encountering those objects is an important part of a museum visit.

The past and present of the Franklin expedition is a Canadian story that continues to captivate and evolve, and we want to interact with that story. I had the opportunity to visit Westminster Abbey in London a couple of years ago, where there is a monument to Franklin. Someone had left a bright red lipstick imprint on the bust. There may not be anything in the pop-up Franklin Exploration exhibit worth kissing, but you can still interact with this story if you give it a shot.

The monument of Sir John Franklin at Westminster Abbey in a lipstick-free moment. Photo Credit: England and London - John L. Stoddard's Lectures

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog post, Sadie! I really like your discussion of the major role of Inuit in the Franklin expedition, it's such an important perspective to include.