Franklin expedition focus of new exhibit

Ken Kellar

A piece of Canadian history is coming to Fort Frances.

Thanks to funding acquired from the federal government, the Fort Frances Museum will be hosting “Echoes in the Ice: Finding Franklin’s Ship” this summer.

“We’re very excited,” museum curator Sherry George told the Times.

“Getting the grant is huge.”

The travelling exhibit about the mysterious, once-lost Franklin expedition is on loan from the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. Documenting what we know of the legendary expedition’s journey to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, and their eventual rediscovery in Canada’s far north, the exhibit is built in part to teach visitors about how exploring the arctic has changed in nearly 200 years.

“It will explain some of the past expeditions to try to find the ships, like what happened to them?” George said.

“It’ll explain how they equipped the ships to begin with. There was three years worth of food. There was an extensive library that went with the ships. There was central heating on these ships,” she added.

“It’s a big, big deal, right? It was planned very well and to lose them–what happened? Why didn’t they come back?”

Sir John Franklin left England in 1845 with two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The purpose of the expedition was to chart the final, unexplored leg of the Northwest Passage, which Europeans thought would open up a possible trade route between Europe and Asia.

By 1848, the Franklin expedition had vanished. Subsequent attempts to try and determine their final fate and location failed to turn up more than rumours and a few artifacts. It wasn’t until Parks Canada, in co-operation with local Inuit populations, began a new search in 2013 that the two ships were found. The HMS Erebus was discovered in 2014, and the HMS Terror was located in 2016.

From the beginning of the 2013 Parks Canada expedition, it was made clear that the Inuit people were equal partners in the search efforts, and that collaboration made possible what more than 150 previous years of searching hadn’t.

“They sent many expeditions to try to find answers and they did find a few clues here and there, but they really didn’t find what they were looking for,” George explained.

“Then to finally find the ships where the Inuit elders’ stories passed down through the families remembered where they were, where they had been sighted. It was their community stories that were able to pinpoint exactly where the ship should be, and that’s where they were.”

The exhibit was likely in the works before the two ships were rediscovered, but it has been updated to include some of the most recent findings.

George noted that the Fort Frances Museum has wanted to bring in larger, and more expensive, exhibits like this for a while, but that they need to be selective in choosing what to book.

“We’ve looked at these traveling exhibits before and some of them are very fascinating, but you might get a new one on insects,” George said.

“Okay, well, is that going to appeal to our community? Is it going to appeal to tourists? So, you know, although it’s definitely interesting, I wanted to bring our first one–one of the costlier ones–in that would have a broad appeal.

“This one is a bit of a mystery, it’s history, it’s science, it’s everything, so I think it will have some broad appeal,” she added.

Alongside the cost, George said it takes a lot of work, and even more paperwork, to bring in an exhibit like this one.

“Before we even get these things you have to fill out all kinds of forms,” she explains.

“Is it going to fit through the doorways? Do you have a shipping door? What is your gallery size? What kind of security do you have? Do you have cameras? Do you have alarm systems? Humidity and temperature control, it just goes on and on and on,” added George.

“So we’re very fortunate because we have those things.”

Ingenium, the company behind the exhibit, also requires the museum to let the pieces of the exhibit rest for a certain amount of time before the museum starts setting it up, to be sure everything is properly acclimatized.

George thinks one of the reasons the lost Franklin expedition has fascinated people for so long is because it speaks to our basic human nature.

“I think it’s a mystery,” she said.

“They had found graves, the graves showed illness. They didn’t know why these people were clearly ill. Also, some of the remains that were found showed cannibalism. So right away you’re thinking, ‘What happened?’

“There were some reports, there were bits and pieces from the Inuit, from different people that actually saw the ship, saw different things,” George continued.

“So I mean, you get these clues but you really don’t know and I think that’s part of it. We all are intrigued by mystery and what happened.”

The museum also serves a greater purpose by bringing in larger travelling exhibits.

“We serve this broad area and not everybody can afford to go to Winnipeg or the larger centres to see some really world-class exhibits,” George said.

“So if we can actually serve that purpose now and again, if we could bring one in even every second year, I think that it is important for our region. They would get to see this, and there are some amazing exhibits out there.”

The museum has raised the entrance fee for the exhibit to compensate for its overall price, but George has her fingers crossed that people will take advantage of the opportunity to see these pieces of history when the exhibit opens at the end of the month.

“You’re never sure what kind of attendance you’re going to have,” she said.

“We always hope for a good summer with our tourists. Also, we’re hoping this will be a draw for our local residents because it is a Canadian story.”

“Echoes in the Ice: Finding Franklin’s Ship” opens to the public on June 29, with the grand opening taking place on July 3.

The exhibit will run 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until Sept. 22.