Manitoba History: Exhibit Review: “The Franklin Exploration Micro-Exhibit,” by the Royal Ontario Museum and Parks Canada
by Frieda Esau Klippenstein
Few Canadians who read newspapers or watch mainstream media could have missed the euphoria in September 2014, when one of the long-lost ships of the Sir John Franklin Expedition, HMS Erebus, was found at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean by a diverse team of public and private partners. Search parties have been anticipating this day for over a century and a half, starting with those initially sent by the British Royal Navy, Lady Franklin, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Then, on 7 September almost two years ago, Inuit traditional knowledge, historical investigations, and advances in science and search technology coalesced on one small screen, as the first cloudy images of a ship sitting virtually intact on the ocean floor were conjured up by sound waves from the side-scan sonar equipment towed by the Parks Canada vessel Investigator.
The complete disappearance of the two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in icy Arctic waters is one of the oldest and most publicized unsolved mysteries in Canadian history. As many of us may recall from our school days, in 1845 Sir John Franklin with a crew of around 130 officers and men left England with great fanfare and optimism. On the British government’s best-equipped northern discovery ships of the day, they were heading out in search of the elusive Northwest Passage to Asia. But after the extra supply ship turned back, as scheduled, at Greenland, the expedition continued onward, never to return.
This exhibit not only provides an attractive and accessible entry into the story of the Franklin Expedition and the search for the lost ships, but it describes and celebrates the historic find. The exhibit is the product of a partnership between Parks Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) with numerous patrons and sponsors. It was launched at the Manitoba Museum on 23 March 2016 while identical copies of it were simultaneously unveiled in nine more participating museums across Canada.
The exhibit is a “pop-up” or “micro-exhibit,” referring to its simple, mobile components and very limited physical footprint. But the scope of the project is bigger than is apparent at first glance. The micro-exhibit is intended to have dynamic digital elements, related programming, and an evolving webpage, as new discoveries occur over the next three years. At present, in text, maps and images, the single, brightly lit panel tells the story of “HMS Erebus Lost” on one side, and “HMS Erebus Found” on the other. Identical interactive screens on each end of the panel provide a brief, animated introduction that sets the tone of mystery and suspense before inviting visitors to explore various aspects of the story: People, History, Search & Find, Wreck and Artifacts, Archaeology, Marine Biology and Partners. The screens contain more content than might be expected, with illustrated info pages and numerous videos including footage from the first dives providing a glimpse of the shipwrecked Erebus and of the earliest recovered artifacts. The panels and screen content struck me as visually attractive, engaging, and of appropriate length. All of it is available in both official languages. A third language is provided in some museums, such as the one in Gjao Haven, Nunavut, the community closest to the find. The touch screens are easy to navigate, and certainly held the attention of the many school children attending the launch, who explored the profiles of historic characters and watched the videos of divers recovering artifacts like the ship’s bell. The exhibit’s placement within the ArcticSubarctic gallery of the museum ensures that visitors are surrounded with relevant visuals and storylines that enrich the overall experience.
A fascinating part of the discovery story is that the most productive clues about what happened to the Expedition’s ships and crew have come from 19th century Inuit oral evidence. Passed down through many generations, the Inuit reports informed much earlier search parties and were given full attention in the present effort. They proved invaluable to the identification of the southern search area, hundreds of kilometres where the ships were abandoned in 1848. Particularly interesting is the included video of Inuit historian Louie Kamookak from Gjoa Haven. Emphasizing the power of oral history and the value of Inuit traditional knowledge, Kamookak points out that his community holds additional surviving memory relevant to the ongoing search for Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror.
Noteworthy on the exhibit panel are the words, “The Search Continues,” and “Watch this Space! Updates will be posted here as the search continues.” Indeed, like its subject this exhibit is intended to be dynamic. The promise of future discoveries and further disclosures is compelling, as the HMS Erebus wreck is further explored and as the “sister” ship of the Franklin expedition, HMS Terror, is sought with renewed vigor.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 15 September 2020