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Anchorage Museum explores fate of doomed Franklin expedition in new exhibit

  • Author: Lauren Ellenbecker
  • Updated: June 12, 2019
  • Published June 13, 2019

Artifacts from an Arctic mystery dating back to 1845 have made their way to the Anchorage Museum.

The exhibition, “Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition,” explores the history of Sir John Franklin and his 128-member crew, which disappeared during an attempt to chart the Northwest Passage, an ice-filled puzzle in the Arctic.

“People are drawn to the story of John Franklin because he was a sort of broken hero looking for his last great heroic moment, and it didn’t end well,” said Julie Decker, Anchorage museum executive director and CEO.

From left, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, Captain Sir John Franklin, and Commander James Fitzjames on display in the Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Franklin and his crew departed Britain on sturdy and well-provisioned ships -- the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror -- in 1845, determined to discover a Northern trade route to Asia from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, said Ryan Kenny, Anchorage Museum associate director of exhibitions.

Although expectations for success were high when the ships set out in 1845, by 1848 the expedition hadn’t been heard from in over two years, and the Royal Navy started organizing and funding search efforts. In the course of 30 expeditions, all they found were supplies, documents, some human remains and grave sites.

It wouldn’t be until nearly 170 years later that one of the ships from the Franklin Expedition, the HMS Erebus, was found in 2014 by a Canadian search team near Gjoa Haven, a small settlement above the Arctic Circle. The second ship from the journey, HMS Terror, was found two years later.

A portion of the 200 artifacts displayed in “Death in Ice” are from the actual shipwrecks, including a steering wheel and ship bell.

A section of wheel from the HMS Erebus was found on the seafloor near the wreck is on display in the Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. (Bill Roth / ADN)

“As a curator, I can’t think of a cooler thing to happen,” Kenny said.

“Death in the Ice” is organized into eight chronological sections delving into different aspects of the expedition -- including how well crew members prepared for their journey, who they were and what happened when the ships disappeared. Throughout parts of the exhibit, video footage of an Arctic landscape is projected on the walls, accompanied by the sounds of crushing ice.

The exhibition explores the longstanding question of how Franklin and his crew died. Reports of cannibalism surfaced soon after the disappearance, and researchers have posed theories about how lead poisoning and simple unpreparedness for cold, harsh weather may have played a role.

The Inuit talked to people searching for the expedition about what they’d seen of Franklin and his crew in the Arctic, including their observations of cannibalism among the men. Jane Franklin, Franklin’s wife, led the campaign to discredit those stories, along with the Inuit themselves, Kenny said, and their information was disregarded.

But that oral history is backed by physical evidence found in the shipwrecks, Kenny said. Today, Inuit knowledge is a critical source for piecing together what happened to the men on the expedition.

Stories from the Inuit people in Canada passed down through the years helped locate the ships HMS Erebus and Terror lost while attempting to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage during the 1845 Sir John Franklin expedition. (Bill Roth / ADN)

“The answers were always there,” Kenny said. “Being able to provide these indigenous accounts that are supported by other artifacts is huge.”

“Death in the Ice” provides Inuit oral histories in English and Inuktitut, a primary Inuit language in Canada. The exhibition is timely because it coincides with an ongoing archaeological dig in Canada, Decker said.

Anchorage is the fourth and last stop for this international exhibition. After “Death in the Ice” is on display in Anchorage, its artifacts will be returned to its owners, which includes the Canadian Museum of History and the National Maritime Museum.

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“Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition” is on display until Sept. 29. Admission is $5 plus the original museum fee. It is free for museum members.

Member-Exclusive: Death in the Ice: This members-only event will feature experts involved in “Death in the Ice,” as well as refreshments and appetizers. Afterward attendees can go on a self-guided tour through the exhibition. Free for members. 6-8 p.m. Thursday.

Archaeology in Alaska: The Neva Shipwreck: Alaska’s former state archaeologist, Dave McMahan, will discuss maritime history and the discovery of the Neva shipwreck in Alaska. The event is free and begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday.