Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition – National Maritime Museum

National Maritime MuseumIn 1845, a Royal Navy expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin to discover and chart the North West Passage set off on its journey. None of the 129 men on the expedition were ever seen alive again. Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition has been developed by the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Canada), in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

The fate of Franklin’s expedition has been a mystery for over a century: despite numerous searches, many instigated by Franklin’s wife Jane, few traces were ever found. A handful of artefacts and some human remains have been discovered, but it is only in the last couple of years that the wrecks of the flagship, Erebus, and its companion vessel, Terror, have been discovered. The ultimate reason why the expedition ended in tragedy has never been established. Approaching the National Maritime Museum, you are confronted by a sea of flags; each one represents a man lost on the expedition.

The exhibition starts with an exploration of the Arctic environment and how Inuit peoples live and thrive in such harsh conditions. Centring the Inuit experience is important for two reasons – firstly because their way of life could have – but didn’t – inspire the various British expeditions that tried to survive in the Arctic in the nineteenth century, and secondly because Inuit testimony was frequently ignored when searchers were trying to find out what had happened to the crews of Erebus and Terror.

The exhibition continues with a look at life on board ship, the role of the different crew members, and brief biographies of key figures on the expedition. It explores the route the expedition took, past Beechey Island and round to King William Island, before the trail grew cold. The expedition spent several winters on the ice, in the dark and cold, with little food other than what they had brought with them from England.

Later the focus turns to the many search parties sent out by Lady Franklin and others, before the ships were finally given up for lost. I must say that to someone like me who knows this topic quite well, much of the exhibition up until now was already known to me, and I didn’t really learn anything new. The exciting part comes towards the end, when I got to view several artefacts, recently recovered from the wrecks, including the bell from Erebus, cast at the Whitechapel Foundry specially for the voyage. It’s still possible to read the date stamp on the side. Videos allow you to watch the divers at work underwater, exploring the wreckage of the ships.

No one really knows exactly why the crew all perished, but various theories are put forward: scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, disease and more. Two crew members who died fairly early on in the journey have been exhumed, and the evidence in their case points to tuberculosis, but this probably did not infect the others on board. Evidence of cannibalism has been found, but it’s impossible to say for certain whether starving crew members killed and ate their fellows out of desperation, or only ate the flesh of those who had already died.

The exhibition is a fantastic introduction to the Franklin expedition for those who don’t know a great deal about it, and for those already fascinated by the topic it allows you to see some incredible artefacts. What will stick in my memory is the single shoe, preserved in the ice, from an unknown crew member – a poignant reminder of the expedition’s human cost.

Death in the Ice runs until 7 January at the National Maritime Museum

Flags marking the dead

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution – National Maritime Museum

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) lived through some of the most dramatic events of the seventeenth century. He witnessed at a young age the beheading of a king, followed by a republic, then the Restoration and two coronations; not to mention the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666. A republican who served under the monarchy, a lover of wine, women and song who nevertheless condemned the licentiousness of the royal court, a President of the Royal Society who admitted that he often did not understand science, and a naval administrator who, when he joined, knew nothing about the sea, Pepys strikes me as a sympathetic character, an ordinary man who to a large extent made it up as he went along and was able to succeed by adapting himself to circumstance and making an effort to learn.

The Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution exhibition, which uses the witty hashtag #PepysShow, explores the history of Pepys’ time in his own words, alongside artefacts and records from the period. He has been called the greatest diarist in the English language; his diary is notable for recording everyday details as well as major events, which have allowed historians to understand what daily life in the seventeenth century was like. Pepys actually kept his diary for ten years only, between 1660 and 1669; he stopped because he feared his eyesight was being affected. However, we have other ways of learning about his life, such as his letters.

The exhibition follows a largely chronological format, beginning with the beheading of King Charles I, witnessed by a young Pepys. We learn about the life-threatening and excruciatingly painful operation he underwent to remove a bladder stone, and his marriage to Elisabeth de St Michel. Pepys’ everyday life is explored in displays relating to music and theatre, both of which he enjoyed, especially after the Restoration when theatre was once again permitted and encouraged.

Representation of the Restoration theatre

We learn about the Great Fire from Pepys’ detailed account, as well as his wife’s illness and death. Later, Pepys was active in the Royal Society and became its President; interestingly, I learned here that Newton’s seminal Principia Mathematica was only published thanks to a donation from Edmund Halley, as the Royal Society had just spent its entire book budget on a History of Fishes.

One of the most impressive items in the exhibition is the eighteenth century court dress, which is in fantastic condition especially given its age. I also enjoyed looking at other artefacts from the period, including early editions of books. The last part of the exhibition explores the publication history of Pepy’s diary: several individuals transcribed them into plain English (from the shorthand in which they were written) during the nineteenth century but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the full, unexpurgated edition – containing references to Pepys’ various liaisons – was published.

The exhibition runs at the National Maritime Museum until 28 March, and it is well worth visiting if you are at all interested in this period of history.

National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum

On Friday I was due to go to the National Maritime Museum for a visit to the Caird Library and Archive (librarianship being my day job) and, having not visited the NMM proper for several years, I decided to take the entire day off and go around the museum before my library visit was due to begin. The museum, the main part of which is free to enter, was established by Act of Parliament in 1934, opening to the public in 1937. The site, encompassing the Naval College and the Royal Observatory, is a World Heritage site, and the buildings started out in 1807 as a school for the children of seafarers, though the most recent addition, the Sammy Ofer Wing, was only completed a few years ago.

Stern of a ship

The Museum’s collections include many and varied items relating to the history of Britain at sea, including art, maps, manuscripts, ship models and plans, a maritime reference laboratory, and seafaring objects including figureheads.

Interesting collection of figureheads

The central galleries have some fascinating exhibits on display. One of my favourites was Prince Frederick’s barge. This was used on the Thames by the Royal family for many years, often for pleasure cruises.

Prince Frederick’s barge (1731)

After wandering about the bright, airy central area of the Museum for a while, I checked out the different galleries. Voyagers: Britons and the Sea had varied artefacts from different time periods relating to how people on this island surrounded by sea saw their relationship to the water. Guiding Lights: 500 years of Trinity House and safety at sea looked at lighthouses and other ways of helping ships avoid the rocks, while Maritime London: 1700 to now is a chronological exploration of how London developed as an important port.

I then moved upstairs to the top of the building, where I looked at the Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery. Probably most notable for displaying the coat Nelson was wearing when he died at Trafalgar, the gallery also looked at the lead-up to the battle and the aftermath. I then popped into Forgotten Fighters: the First World War at Sea, which was a bit dry for my tastes, but an appropriate commemoration of World War I. Back on the first floor, the Great Map caught my eye. Children and families can play games and use tablets to interact with the map, but I contented myself with just looking at it. Next to it was the Environment Gallery, informing us about existing and possible future damage to our seas.

The Great Map

Two particularly detailed galleries, The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire and Traders: the East India Company and Asia look at the wider context of Britain’s relationship with the sea and the lands that sailors were able to explore and exploit. Finally, I ended my journey around the museum with a look at the restored Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass, damaged in the 1992 bomb that led to the demolition of the Baltic Exchange (the gherkin now occupies that site).

Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass

Plenty for all ages to see and do (there are also childrens’ play areas): not bad for a free museum.


Address: Romney Road, Greenwich, SE10 9NF


Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Free (except for special exhibitions)

Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude – National Maritime Museum


Christmas is over, so what to do? I thought it was time to blow away the cobwebs and get out of the house, so I spent my first weekend of the New Year doing something constructive. I was back in London so I decided to go to Greenwich, as there were a couple of exhibitions there I wanted to see.

Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude commemorated the 300th anniversary of the passing of the Longitude Act in July 1714. This Act was aimed at encouraging a solution to be found for the longitude problem – essentially, working out whereabouts you are when you are at sea. In these days of accurate maps and GPS systems it’s probably hard to imagine what it would have been like to be in the middle of the ocean not knowing where you were.

Finding latitude – your position relative to the equator – was comparatively simple, as this could be done by looking at  the position of the sun. Working out your longitude – how far east or west you were – was much trickier.

The exhibition looked at the concept of longitude, doing a good job of explaining it to someone like me who honestly wasn’t quite sure what it was. It discussed the Longitude Act and those responsible for judging it, as well as various theories put forward by different individuals – some particularly outlandish!

It then went on to look at the two main theories that gained dominance – one involving clocks and one involving the Moon (apologies for the generalisations – my lack of scientific expertise is to blame!). It turned out that both theories would work, and proved effective in different ways. The exhibition then examined how travel by sea developed in later years.

I liked the interactive parts of the exhibition – there was a “coffee house” where you could read news articles about the Act, and towards the end there was a large table with an interactive surface where you could hear the judges discuss the different proposals. I did think some of it could have been laid out differently – at certain points there were long queues to look in some of the glass cases. However, overall the exhibition was really good.

Turner and the Sea – National Maritime Museum

As a fan of the artist J.M.W. Turner, I went to visit the exhibition of his work at the National Maritime Museum, Turner and the Sea. I didn’t get time to look around the museum itself as I had to get back into central London, but I did manage to get a good look at the exhibition.

Turner is well known for his paintings of the sea and this exhibition beautifully showcases his best works – including The Fighting Temeraire, recently voted the nation’s greatest painting in a BBC poll – as well as some lesser-known works and sketches. There are also a number of works by other artists who inspired or were inspired by Turner.