Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dangerous Obsession

'The Fate of Franklin no man may know...'

So goes a line in 'Lady Franklin's Lament', a mid-nineteenth century ballad I heard on an audio hand-set at the National Maritime Museum's new exhibition. It's not so dramatic as the one called 'South!' five years ago, about Scott and the Antarctic, but it's a timely exhibition, given current concerns about global warming. And it's free.

Sir John Franklin led three searches to find a potentially lucrative North West Passage across the arctic wastes, the purpose being to speed up access to eastern spice routes and access furs and whale products.

In 1845, despite being equipped with 'the latest techological innovations' (including canned food) the expedition ships and entire crews vanished.

Lady Franklin set about convincing the government to sponsor further expeditions but it wasn't until 1859 that traces were discovered, including parts of a diary. Some of the rumours circulating caused Charles Dickens to refute claims that the crew had turned to cannibalism in an attempt to survive. Another theory said degraded soldering on the cans could have caused lead poisoning.

There are some very good paintings of other explorers, with some guff about how good-looking they were, and interesting artefacts, including letters, maps, drawings and relics, such as the staff that was stuck in the magnetic pole when it was discovered, a pair of snow goggles, an 1829 ship's biscuits and a whale tusk engraved with a hunting scene.

My personal favourites were the models to show the differences between Inuit traditional fur clothing, 'annuraaqs' (from which we get 'anorak') and European arctic dress, which favours layers. There's also a filmed interview with an Inuit conservationist pointing out the consequences of further traffic after 2030, when it's thought the North West Passage will be free of ice.

Bang up to date, there's even a display case devoted to a man who runs expeditions called 'Ice Warrior', for modern 'explorers' who don't mind temperatures of -30 degrees. He's well supported by modern communication methods, such as satnavs, so there'll be no call for ballads about him and his crews, I hope.

Ice Warror:

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