Exhibition at Mystic Seaport explores mystery of the Franklin expedition
The last time the Terror was in southeastern Connecticut, the vessel was lobbing 80-pound shells at the village of Stonington. Now the old British warship is back, at Mystic Seaport Museum — virtually, at least.
The Terror and its sister ship, the Erebus, remain deep in their watery graves off King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. But an exhibit of artifacts taken from the ships is on display at the museum through April 28.
“Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition” opened on Dec. 1 in Mystic, its only stop in the continental United States. It premiered in Greenwich, England, and it was developed by the Canadian Museum of History, in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum in London, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.
With more than 200 artifacts, as well as maps and videos, “Death in the Ice” probes the mystery of Sir John Franklin's 1845-48 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
A video monitor as big as a barroom TV illustrates polar exploration from the 1500s to Franklin's time, slowly revealing the known landscape of northern Canada and the Arctic like a Polaroid developing.
By the time Franklin set off from England in 1845, the coveted route to link Europe and Asia seemed within reach.
Nearly nine years later, the British Admiralty gave up all hope of finding the 129 crew members alive.
No less than 36 expeditions set out to determine the fate of Franklin and his men, but all came back empty-handed. It was not until 2014 that the Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada divers; two years later, the Terror was found as well.
Searchers relied on stories of the native Inuit people as well as sonar and remotely operated underwater vehicles to determine that the ships lay underwater far south of where they were thought to have been wrecked.
“I love that combination,” said Elysa Engelman, the Seaport's director of exhibits. “It took the oral tradition and the high-tech diving in order to find those ships.”
Both are represented in the exhibit, which includes native tools and seal-fur clothing, as well as a folk art driftwood carving resembling Franklin's ships. You can listen to an Inuit tribal member speaking in both his native language and English of his ancestors' encounters with the ice-bound men.
Visitors also can view video of a diver aboard the Erebus, which is being explored first because of its more precarious position on the sea bottom. Among the artifacts recovered and on display here are the ship's bronze bell; a section of its wheel; a medicine bottle used to keep ammunition; and a blue willow dinner plate.
All are in remarkably good condition, considering they were entombed in the sea for a century and a half, a time when historians could only speculate about the fate of the ships and their crew.
Even now, many questions remain about the ill-fated expedition. By September 1846, the ships were frozen in place.
“They knew they were going to be locked in the ice for at least one winter,” Engelman said. But the thaw they expected the following summer never materialized.
Three men died in the first year and were buried in marked graves on Beechey Island. These bodies have been exhumed, and forensic tests determined at least one died of tuberculosis. (Photos of the bodies are included in one section of the exhibit, which includes a trigger warning and may not be suitable for young children.)
The three men had high levels of lead in their bones, which has inspired at least one theory: lead solder had leached into their canned foodstuffs, poisoning them. The cannery where they purchased their provisions also was suspect, leading some to blame botulism for the men's deaths.
On June 11, 1847, Franklin died. By the following April, with nine officers and 15 crew dead, the survivors abandoned the ship.
Engelman said many factors likely contributed to the men's deaths. “They were exhausted,” she said, ticking off their obstacles: below-zero temperatures, limited rations, and high lead levels “that might be affecting their decision-making.”
Perhaps the most haunting artifact is a single piece of paper found in a metal container in a stone cairn. Dotted with a few rust-colored blotches and kept under low light, it stands as primary evidence of the Franklin exhibition's struggle and fate.
First it contains Franklin's optimistic report: “All well.” Later, a crew member amended the document to note Franklin's death and the men's decision to abandon the vessels and attempt to walk to Back River, dragging sledges of supplies behind them. Other than an Inuit encounter with the men, they were never heard from or seen again.
The fate of the Franklin party has inspired a novel (Dan Simmons' “The Terror,” in which he imagines the men driven mad by poisoned food) and an AMC TV series based on it.
While “Death in the Ice” places the story in historical, cultural and geographic context, the Seaport also has added elements of local interest.
Among these is a panel about the Terror's bombardment of Stonington Borough during the War of 1812. One 10-inch iron shell is included, courtesy of the Stonington Historical Society.
According to the ship's master, its crew sent 170 mortar shells toward the picturesque village. But even the aggrieved Stonington residents could not have predicted that the Terror would find karma on the chilly bottom of an ice-bound sea.
If you go
What: “Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition”
Where: Mystic Seaport Museum, 105 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic (north entrance)
When: Through April 28
Hours: Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; open daily Dec. 26 through 31, same hours
Admission: $28.95 for adults, $26.95 for ages 65 and up, $18.95 for ages 4-14, free for children 3 and younger
Tickets: Available at www.mysticseaport.org and at the Seaport entrance
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