Death in the ice: the shocking story of Franklin's final expedition

From 14 July, the National Maritime Museum (NMM) will host a major exhibition, developed by the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) in partnership with the NMM and Parks Canada, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust, exploring the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew on their final expedition – a mystery that still remains unsolved today.  

With over 200 objects on display from the superlative collections of the NMM and the CMH, alongside finds from HMS Erebus - whose resting place was only discovered in 2014 - on show for the very first time in Europe, the exhibition promises to advance our understanding of the expedition, to reveal the Victorian fascination with the Arctic, and to begin to answer questions about what may have happened to those men on their fateful journey to the Arctic all those years ago.

Setting sail from the Thames on 19 May 1845, Sir John Franklin and his crew, aboard HMS Erebus and Terror, were the British nation’s biggest hope of finally traversing the whole of the North-West Passage - the much desired passage from Europe to Asia thought to enable an easier trade route. A hope that Britain believed with near certainty was about to be realized by the largest expedition the nation had ever sent to the Arctic region, under the leadership of the already well-decorated and well-travelled, 59-year-old Franklin.

However, July 1845 in Baffin Bay was to be the last time Europeans saw Franklin and his 128-man crew, as HMS Erebus and Terror sailed toward their goal of finally charting the remainder of the North-West Passage. Two years passed and still nothing had been heard from the men, prompting the first of a series of expeditions to be sent into the Arctic in an attempt to find them and the reasons why they had not been in touch with their loved ones back home. Between 1847 and 1880, over thirty search expeditions ventured to the Arctic in the hopes of uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition.

Urged by Lady Jane Franklin, Parliament, and even the British press as public concern grew, the Admiralty dispatched expeditions both overland and by sea. By 1850 there were still no clues to the fate of the crew and the British Government, after much criticism, offered substantial rewards of £20,000 to any parties who could provide news of the expedition or assist its crew. Over the course of the next thirty years, news and relics, such as tin cans, snow goggles and cutlery - examples of which can be seen in Death in the Ice - filtered back to Britain that spoke of what had happened: the deaths of the entire crew through a combination of factors including scurvy and starvation, and speculation of cannibalism and potential madness brought on by lead poisoning. It was not until 1859 that the sole piece of paper, often known as the Victory Point Note (and on display as part of the exhibition), was found and revealed anything about what happened, including the  date of Sir John Franklin’s death - 11th June, 1847. However, Erebus, Terror, and the bodies of Franklin and most of his crew (three bodies were found buried on Beechey Island and two skeletons which were returned to Britain during the 19th-century) were still nowhere to be found.

It was over 100 years after the last search expedition returned home that investigation into the fate of the Franklin expedition garnered public attention, when forensic anthropologist, Dr Owen Beattie began the 1845–48 Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project (FEFAP). Relics and human remains, overlooked by earlier searchers, were collected in 1981 by Beattie’s team from sites on King William Island. The human remains were analyzed using modern forensic techniques in an attempt to ascertain what might have caused the death of the crew and to identify which crew members’ remains had been found. Through Beattie’s research it was found that the amount of lead in the bones of some of the men that had been found was exponentially high, leading to the theory that lead poisoning may have been one of the factors contributing to the Expedition’s demise.  More widely known is Beattie’s later work on Beechey Island, where he and a specialized team exhumed and autopsied three remarkably well-preserved crewmen who had died and were buried during the Expedition’s first winter in the Arctic. Examination of tissues collected from the men’s bodies reaffirmed Beattie’s earlier theory that lead poisoning was one of the factors leading to the Expedition’s destruction. Beattie further supposed that the Expedition’s tinned food, hailed as cutting edge technology and stocked in abundance, had been contaminated by lead solder used to seal the tins and was the most likely culprit. Visitors to Death in the Ice will get the chance to step into a forensic tent for themselves and explore the evidence and theories put forward of what caused the deaths of the 129-strong crew.

Beattie’s research renewed interest in the mysterious fate of Franklin and his crew, but the question of what happened to HMS Erebus and Terror remained unanswered. That was until 2014, when the wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada, as part of a multi-faceted partnership that included government, private and non-profit groups, followed by the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016, marking two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. As Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team begin to bring to light the ships and their contents, Death in the Ice will see objects relating to the expedition and the subsequent search parties, including personal items, clothing, and components of the ship, displayed in Britain for the first time in over 170 years. Furthermore, finds from HMS Erebus itself will be on display, many for the very first time since their recovery, including the ship’s bell. In conjunction with new research from Parks Canada, the NMM’s own pre-eminent collections, and those of CMH, the exhibition will further our understanding of the expedition and reveal what life was like for the men aboard the ships, explore the Victorian obsession with the Arctic, and seek to answer questions about what exactly may have happened to those men on their fateful journey to chart the North-West Passage all those years ago.

The exhibition will emphasise the significant role of Inuit in uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition, showcasing Inuit oral histories relating to the European exploration of the Arctic Archipelago. Numerous Inuit artefacts, including some incorporating materials of European origin, which were traded from explorers or retrieved from abandoned ships, will also be on display in the exhibition, highlighting the interactions between the search expeditions and the Inuit.

Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition is developed by the Canadian Museum of History, in partnership with Parks Canada and with the National Maritime Museum, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

Exhibition information for visitors:

Venue:                        National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Dates:                         14 July 2017 – 7 January 2018
Opening times:           every day, 10.00 – 17.00
Visitor enquiries:        020 8858 4422 /
Admission:                 Adult £12, Child £7, Concession £11, please see for online discounts and further details

Notes to Editors: 

  1. The National Maritime Museum holds the world’s largest maritime collection, housed in historic buildings forming part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. The National Maritime Museum is part of Royal Museums Greenwich which also incorporates the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 17th-century Queen’s House and Cutty Sark. Royal Museums Greenwich works to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people. This unique collection of museums and heritage buildings, which form a key part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcomes over two and a half million British and international visitors a year and is one of the top 10 most visited UK attractions. Royal Museums Greenwich is also a major centre of education and research. 
  2. Located on the shores of the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History welcomes over 1.2 million visitors each year. The Museum’s principal role is to enhance Canadians’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the events, experiences, people and objects that have shaped Canada’s history and identity, as well as to enhance Canadians’ awareness of world history and culture. 
  3. Parks Canada manages one of the finest and most extensive systems of protected natural and cultural areas in the world including 46 national parks, 4 national marine conservation areas, 171 national historic sites and 1 national urban park.  Parks Canada works to ensure that Canada’s historic and natural heritage is presented and protected for the enjoyment, education and appreciation of Canadians and visitors from around the world today and in the future. For further information, please contact: Media Relations, Parks Canada Agency - Tel: 855-862-1812 or Email:
  4. Established in 1999, the Government of Nunavut represents over 40,000 “Nunavummiut” living sparsely on a land nearly two million square kilometres in size. Nunavut is Canada’s largest territory and the newest member of Canadian confederation. Nunavut (Inuktitut for “Our Land”) has a rich and complex human history spanning nearly 5,000 years, and highlighted by the remarkable ability of Inuit and their predecessors to adapt and to thrive in one of the world’s harshest and most challenging environments.

For further information or images, please contact:

Rhianon Davies, Royal Museums Greenwich Press Office

Tel: 020 8312 6545 | 07983 542 841 or Email: