Death In The Ice: The Hunt For A Lost Arctic Expedition

Death in the Ice, National Maritime Museum ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 52 months ago

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Death In The Ice: The Hunt For A Lost Arctic Expedition Death in the Ice, National Maritime Museum 3
This bell was the first item found in the dives from the two ships. It remains remarkably intact.

129 men, under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, left England in 1845 to navigate the Northwest passage, through the Arctic to Asia. But they were never heard from again. What happened to them — did the ship sink? Did they freeze to death? Or did they starve and resort to cannibalism?

There are plenty of Romantic paintings in the show. Copyright National Maritime Museum

Death in the Ice at National Maritime Museum examines this fateful voyage and the many expeditions that attempted to find Franklin and his men. It starts with the tour de force that was Lady Franklin calling on everyone she could find to recover her husband's expedition, and goes right through to the recent Canadian expedition which found the remains of the two ships of the expedition — Erebus and Terror.

Inuit artefacts feature heavily including this carving of a ship. It's worth remembering massive ships would be quite a sight for a people living in an area where wood was a rarity.

Explorers were the rockstars of the Victorian era, with everyone back at home awaiting tales of their expeditions. Massive rewards were to be expected, and they were often able to sell stories of their exploits. This exhibition contains books about their voyages, and plates showing Arctic scenes based on what these pioneers had encountered.

One of our favourite items in the show is a cat o nine tails that was used to maintain discipline. 48 lashes was the punishment for drunkenness — we're not sure the Royal Navy would get away with this now.

48 lashes for drunkenness. A cat o nine tails used for maintaining order on board.

Tens of thousands of pounds were offered to find the lost expedition, yet 36 search expeditions failed to find any evidence. Ultimately, it was with the help of local Inuits that the remains of the ships were found in 2014 and 2016. It's important to recognise the contribution of the Inuit people to finally discovering the ships — at the time of Franklin's expedition, many Brits were keen to level accusations at them of killing Franklin's men. This exhibition goes some way to remedying that with Inuit kayaks and carvings, and displays that can be listened to in either English or Inuktitut.

Images of the dive show how hard it must be to recover items from the wrecks.

Dives have now recovered items from the wrecks including a bell that is surprisingly intact, but the recovery is understandably difficult, given it's been over 170 years since the two ships sank under the ice. Uncovering the graves of the first three members of the expedition has also helped piece together the story of their last days. Grisly photos of the exhumations show clothing intact and signs of malnourishment.

However, how they died remains a mystery. There are many theories varying from cannibalism to tuberculosis. All the theories are set out here, with for and against arguments for each, and visitors are left to make up their own minds.

Some of the men lost on the voyage.

But it's the lack of evidence and knowledge that is this show's failing, as it means there's just not enough in terms of artefacts to really translate the story into a successful exhibition. It's understandable that it's all largely speculation and the stories behind the hunt for the lost expedition are engrossing, but unfortunately most of the objects here can't quite back it up.  

Franklin: Death in the Ice is on at National Maritime Museum from 14 July - 7 January 2018. Adult tickets £9.60-£12.

Last Updated 16 July 2017