MYSTIC — Dignitaries from several First Nations, Canada, Great Britain and the United States will gather at the Mystic Seaport Museum Saturday morning for the opening of an extraordinary arctic exhibit that will be on display in only two American museums.
"Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition" includes more than 200 objects from the collections of the National Maritime Museum in London and the Canadian Museum of History alongside finds recovered by Parks Canada from Franklin’s ship HMS Erebus. The exhibition opens for a five-month run in Mystic before moving to Anchorage, Alaska.
It is thanks to the Inuit people and their oral histories that this exhibit can be presented to today's audiences.
The exhibition explores what organizers call "one of the sea's most enduring puzzles." It offers a treasure trove of artifacts to adventure lovers, history buffs and those who have followed the mysterious story of Sir John Franklin and his doomed expedition. It also includes a few mini-exhibits with local connections, including a cannonball fired on the village of Stonington in 1814 during the Battle of Stonington.
One May morning in 1845, two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, with 129 men aboard, set out from Greenhithe, England, to chart a northwest passage to India and China.
"They were looking for a better way to reach Asia ... for a faster trade route," said Nicholas Bell, the museum's senior vice president for curatorial affairs. "But they were never seen again."
Franklin and his men were last seen in Baffin Bay in July 1845. Two years would pass with nothing heard from the men, prompting the first of a series of expeditions to the Arctic in an attempt to find them. Over the next 30 years, news and relics such as snow goggles, cutlery, and a portable stove — which can be seen in "Death in the Ice" — "filtered back out of the Arctic and spoke to what had happened," according to Bell.
Speculation began. Did the crew die from scurvy and starvation? Or was it cannibalism or maybe madness brought on by lead poisoning from the canned goods they carried with them on the voyage?
"Franklin became a myth," Bell said Wednesday afternoon as he walked through the exhibit, "an enduring legend, a mystery." And the subject of an untold number of books, stories and songs.
"Wilkie Collins, Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Margaret Atwood all wrote fiction based on the Franklin expedition," according to The New York Times. "James Taylor, Iron Maiden and the Breeders wrote songs about the sailors and their ordeal. Hobbyists and scholars connect on Facebook and blog forums to pore over evidence and crowdsource keys to the question of how, exactly, the men died."
Just last year, the British director Ridley Scott produced "The Terror" for AMC, a 10-part fictionalized account of Franklin and his lost ships.
"It cannot be overstated how central this loss was," said Bell. "People were obsessed with this story. There were 129 men ... where did they go?"
"It was a phenomenon ... a cliffhanger," he continued, "People had Franklin fever."
It was not until 1859, when a single sheet of paper — known now as the Victory Point Note and on display in Mystic — was found and revealed clues, including the date of Franklin’s death, on June 11, 1847, Bell explained. The note was found in a cairn at Victory Point, on the northwest coast of King William Island.
But Erebus, Terror, and the bodies of Franklin and most of his crew were nowhere to be found. The bodies of three men were found buried on Beechey Island, and in 1850, two skeletons were discovered and returned to England, but still no ships.
The mystery endured until 2014, when a team of divers and researchers and an underwater archaeologist from Parks Canada found the HMS Erebus. It was upright and intact and lying in 33 feet of water. Two years later, the wreck of the HMS Terror was found.
The discoveries are two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history, Bell said.
"Part of what's so extraordinary about this exhibit," said Bell, "is the fact that it's not just historical, it's contemporary. They are still diving and finding things. The story is not over. It is evolving."
The significant role of the Inuit in solving the mystery cannot be overstated either, he repeated. "Their oral history provided an enormous body of literature," said Bell.
The exhibition emphasizes the role that the Inuit played in uncovering the fate of the Franklin Expedition, and showcases Inuit oral histories and artifacts, including some that were traded with explorers or retrieved from abandoned ships.
"We are very pleased to be presenting this compelling and mystifying story, which has had a hold on the imaginations of so many since the ships disappeared into the Arctic,” said Steve White, Mystic Seaport Museum president. "We are particularly pleased to highlight the critical role Inuit have played in the Franklin story, from the years immediately following the expedition’s loss to recent discoveries of the ships. Though much of what happened to the expedition remains a mystery, what we do know is largely thanks to Inuit oral history and underwater archaeology.”
"This is not your grandmother's museum," said Bell. "We are an all-season museum with world-class programming."
On Saturday, members of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes will lead a welcome ceremony before the official opening of the exhibit.
The exhibition was developed by the Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Canada, 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. It will run through April 28, 2019, in the Collins Gallery of the Thompson Exhibition Building.