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

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)

The Royal Observatory

I had a joint ticket for an exhibition, the Planetarium and the Observatory (an Astro ticket), so after I left the National Maritime Museum where Ships, Clocks & Stars was located, I struggled up the massive hill to the Royal Observatory, just in time to see the red Time Ball drop at 1 pm. This was first used in 1833 and was a way for ships’ crew and ordinary Londoners to set the time accurately.

Ball goes up…
…ball comes down.

The first thing I did was go to the Astronomy Centre, where I attended a Planetarium show called Dark Universe. This was great fun and it was an awesome experience – we sat in chairs looking up at the domed ceiling and it felt as though we were flying through the stars. The show is about what we know, and don’t know, about the universe and it is narrated by astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson. I came out with my head spinning as I tried to comprehend how vast space is. After that I wandered around the Astronomy Centre building, looking at the exhibitions and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, which had some amazing entries.

Astronomy Centre

Next I went to the Royal Observatory proper. Flamsteed House was the first building of the Observatory, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 and built on the site of Greenwich Castle. The House contains the Astronomer Royal’s apartments, where the Astronomers Royal from John Flamsteed onwards lived and worked, and the Octagon Room, designed as the perfect spot from which to observe planetary motions, but which was actually not used for this purpose as it wasn’t positioned properly.

Flamsteed House

When I visited, the House was home to Longitude Punk’d, an exhibition complementing that at the NMM and consisting of responses to the “Longitude Problem” by a variety of steampunk artists. The artists worked together to create a kind of ‘alternate history’ and designed products relating to this, which were very inventive and impressive.

I visited the ‘Time and Greenwich’, ‘Time for the Navy’ and ‘Time and Society’ galleries which were all about the role of time in different aspects of human history (The ‘Time and Longitude’ gallery had mostly been taken to the NMM for the Longitude exhibition). There were some interesting things on display, particularly an inordinate number of clocks. I tried to take advantage of the hilltop site of the Observatory by looking out over London, but unfortunately it was a bit of a rubbish day so I couldn’t see much.

Looking towards the Thames and the O2
The National Maritime Museum

Outside in the courtyard, I watched people taking pictures on the Meridian Line – the Prime Meridian of the world, Longitude 0°. I had a go myself but I only got my feet in as I wasn’t going to faff about with selfies in front of so many people!

The Meridian Courtyard
The Meridian Line
Longitude 0°

Despite the bad weather I had an enjoyable day out in Greenwich. One day I will go back and see the National Maritime Museum properly.


Address: Blackheath Avenue, Greenwich, London, SE10 8XJ


Opening Hours: 10am-6pm daily

Prices: £9.50 adult, £5 child, combined tickets with other RMG attractions available