22 March 2018




For my final Museum Mysteries post, I couldn't resist taking an age-old Victorian mystery out of the freezer for a thaw: the famous Franklin Expedition to the Arctic.

The last time Musings tackled this frigid phantom of a story was with Sadie MacDonald's review of the pop-up exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Now, the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) has opened their exhibition, Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition, after its run at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK.

Death in the Ice is a joint effort between the Canadian Museum of History, Inuit Heritage Trust and the UK National Maritime Museum, as well as Parks Canada and the Government of Nunavut.

Promotional image for Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition. Photo: Canadian Museum of History.

Having worked at the Museum of Inuit Art and Inuit Art Foundation respectively, northern Canadian history is one of my key focuses. When I interned at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, I delivered educational programming to high school students alongside the Canada Science and Technology Museum's travelling exhibition Echoes in the Ice: Finding Franklin's ShipI doubt I'll ever stop being interested in the lost expedition and its mysterious legacy.

Note found in a cairn in 1859 on King
William Island, written by Franklin's
crew and even updated to report
Franklin's death and the desertion of
the ships. Source.
Sir John Franklin was selected in 1845 (though far from the top choice) at age 59 to lead a British Royal Navy expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. In what is now the Canadian Arctic, Franklin and his crew met Inuit who later provided oral testimony of their encounters with the British men. 

With 129 men on board, the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror got locked in the ice and were rendered immobile. Franklin was dead by 1847, and the surviving men were forced to desert the ships and travel south on foot. In the harsh Arctic conditions, none would survive. Rumours swirled that some men, in sheer desperation, had resorted to cannibalism, a sensational element of this story that both repulses and fascinates. (Charles Dickens published articles weighing in on the cannibalism debate, despite Victorians' indignation at the thought.) 

On the MMSt Ottawa trip last year, CMH staff spoke to us about their efforts to represent previously overlooked Inuit perspectives in Death in the Ice. The exhibition is said to focus heavily on Inuit voices and experiences - though that's not to say that it hasn't had its fair share of controversy regarding objects taken from the shipwrecks of the Erebus and Terror after their respective discoveries by Parks Canada in 2014 and 2016.
The reason for this is simple: Inuit were the last to see the ships and their crews. And those encounters, preserved in oral histories and shared with Parks Canada and its partners, contributed directly to the discovery of HMS Erebus and Terror. - Canadian Museum of History, "Inuit Knowledge and the Franklin Expedition Exhibition"
Peter Taptuna (Nunavut's Premier at the time) claimed in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in fall 2016 that Parks Canada wrongfully removed artifacts belonging to Nunavut and Inuit Heritage Trust since the wrecks are in their territory. Parks Canada alleges that the wrecks are still British property, citing a 1997 agreement in which the British consented to transfer the contents of the wrecks to Canada once found. 

Memorial to Sir John Franklin and the lost expedition outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. Source.
I haven't managed to pop back to Ottawa to visit the Death in the Ice exhibition (as well as my alma mater) yet, but I suppose that just adds to this column's air of mystery. I've instead outlined a few questions I would like to see answered or at least discussed in the exhibition: 
  • How can we give oral traditions more weight as a way of knowing in exhibitions like these, where Indigenous narratives are integral? 
  • What does our obsession with the men's purported cannibalism tell us about sensationalism as it relates to museum audiences? 
  • Some of the men's bodies were preserved in the ice and found intact over a century later - but will we ever find Sir John Franklin's body? Would it teach us anything new?
  • When will the ownership dispute be resolved between Inuit and Parks Canada? Is there a way to interpret history in museums without displaying artifacts with questionable provenance?
Most of my questions are more museological than factual. I accept that some mysteries will forever remain unsolved, but that doesn't mean we can't explore and learn from them in the absence of concrete answers. Instead, these unknowns can be an excellent prompt toward critical thinking and dialogue.

Plus, we have great historical interpretation on television to satiate our curiosity. I can't wait to see how the Franklin Expedition is adapted in AMC's newest drama, The Terror, which premieres this Monday. Time will tell whether Inuit are satisfactorily represented in the series, but I'm eager to start taking it in. (And before you ask, I haven't been paid off by AMC - it's not my fault they make so many historical dramas!)

The Terror actors CiarĂ¡n Hinds (as Sir John Franklin), Jared Harris, and Tobias Menzies discuss their characters - both historically and as interpreted in the series.
So how can we keep dwelling on the same mysteries time and again without stifling them? By offering different vantage points. It's an issue I've been focusing a lot on in my Musings articles this year: tell the story that hasn't been told, and people will listen. Promise visitors more, and they will want to keep learning. Answer questions, but focus just as much on what we don't know. 

With that, my readers, I'll close the door on Museum Mysteries for now. I hope you've enjoyed embracing the unknown and that you'll continue to do so!

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