Start the year as you mean to go on, is a saying one often hears. Our year has started with a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We were visiting to undertake some research for a possible future nautical related display and gain some inspiration. We arrived in Greenwich quite early at 9.30am as we wanted to secure our parking for the day and the museum was not yet open. As we waited outside the front of the museum we came across a sort of memorial to the crew of the Franklin exhibition, it was very peaceful there at that time of day. As we approached we could hear the sound of waves crashing and in front of us on banners were the names of the 129 crew who died on Franklin’s expedition to find the North West Passage. It was quite a moving memorial.
I’d been fascinated with the story since the 1990s when I owned a book about mummies, which included photos of 3 of the crew who had died early in the mission and were buried on route. Their perfectly preserved bodies were found in 1984, still with whiskers, clothing and even eyeballs intact. The cold conditions had worked as a freezer to perfectly preserve their bodies for all that time.
The discovery of a north-west passage was a 19th century obsession as it would have meant an immense boost to trade if there was a quicker way to get to the East. Franklin set off in May of 1845 with enough provisions for 3 years. Sadly it was not meant to be and most of the crew who set off from England died (A few were sent back for some reason). Many expeditions were sent to try to find Franklin and his crew. A few of which found clues but no trace of the ships. That was until 2014 when explorers following the information that the native Inuit people had provided finally found the wreck of the Erebus. Terror was found 2 years later. The words of the Inuit had been discounted in the 19th century by many people, most famously by Charles Dickens.
The exhibition is a masterpiece and wonderfully conveys the tale of this ill fated expedition. Unlike our 19th century ancestors it is respectful of Inuit traditions and knowledge. There are replicas of Inuit clothing and a canoe to view as well as tools that they use and some that were made from abandoned items they found from the expedition, metal and wood being scarce resources in that part of the world.
The story is told through many personal objects, and opens with a single shoe of a crew member found on one of the wrecks. It is displayed against a moving underwater scene. There are many other personal objects of the crew, dinner plates they ate off, cutlery, tin cans, the surgeons medicine chest, even a piece of meat. The most poignant and moving objects for me were items taken from the graves of the 3 crew members found in 1984, John Torrington, John Hartnell & William Braine. Photos of them as they were found were very respectfully displayed next to each other with items from their grave, part of the shirt sleeve of one, the scarf that covered the face of another etc. It felt very moving to be so close to these objects that were so personal to those crew members and had been buried with them for so long in the ice. To see the individual stitching and the weave of the material are something that no photo can convey. It conveyed very respectfully a sense of what it must have been like standing at those grave sides as they were buried and later discovered.
One of the other very touching objects in the exhibition was a letter written by a family of one of the missing crew to their son. They still had hope that their son was still alive. It was immensely moving to read their words of hope knowing now the fate that he befell.
There was an interesting section on what may have killed the various crew members and how various diseases like scurvy & tuberculosis may have affected them. It’s also thought that lead poisoning either from their food tins or water supply may have killed many as many of the corpses found contained high levels of lead. This section also included the doctors medicine chest.
The exhibition also covered the various expeditions that tried to find Franklin and a section on how the ships were found in 2014 & 2016.
The exhibition started in July 2017 and only runs now till the 7 January 2018, so if you want to see it, you’d better get your skates on and get down to Greenwich this week.
If you believe you are a descendant of one of the crew of the Franklin expedition, DNA research is currently being carried out to find out who the skeletons found in the region belong to. Your DNA might help name them and fill in an important piece of the puzzle. You never know, it might also help lay a few ghosts to rest at last.