Relics recovered from the wreck of the HMS Erebus in Nunavut’s Queen Maud Gulf will soon make a long-awaited return across the Atlantic to England, as part of a historic exhibition planned by Canadian and British museums on the ill-fated expedition led in 1845 by Sir John Franklin.
The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a borough in southeast London, confirmed to Nunatsiaq News that it’s assisting in a Canadian Museum of History-led Franklin exhibit that will pool newly discovered artifacts from Nunavut with British-held relics which, in some cases, have never before left the country.
The exhibition is scheduled for display at the National Maritime Museum outside London in 2017, during Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, followed by a residency at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History in 2018.
“The [National Maritime] Museum has assisted researchers from the Canadian Museum of History in the development of a forthcoming exhibition on Franklin, and will be lending a significant number of its collections for display in Canada in 2018,” the National Maritime Museum senior exhibitions curator, Claire Warrior, said in an email, crediting a healthy dialogue between her institution and Parks Canada.
“The vital role of Inuit in ascertaining what happened to the men and their ships—in both the past and the present—will be foregrounded in the exhibition. The enduring links between Britain and Nunavut will lie at its heart,” she added.
Russell Potter, historian and author of “Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search,” says the exhibit will benefit both countries.
“The fact that this exhibition will first open in the U.K. should not diminish its value for Canadians, indeed it will be the centerpiece of U.K. observations of Canada’s sesquicentennial, with events planned by [the High Commission of Canada in London] in connection with it,” Potter told Nunatsiaq News.
Ownership talks continue
Following the discovery of the HMS Erebus in 2014, Parks Canada, the British Government, and Nunavut Inuit organizations began talks on the ownership of recovered artifacts.
Parks Canada confirmed Dec. 8 that the relics currently remain under the ownership of the British Government, but negotiations continue for the transfer of the items, with Parks Canada “actively seeking opportunities to include both Inuit Heritage Trust and Nunavut Tunngavik Corp. [sic]”
“At this time, the artifacts remain under the ownership of the British Government. Parks Canada is in discussions with the National Museum of the Royal Navy for the transfer of the recovered artifacts and they are aware of the Government of Canada’s position on joint-ownership,” said a Parks Canada communications officer, Meagan Bradley.
“It is important to note that Inuit are playing an active role in managing these cultural treasures and it is our shared objective to have the artifacts on display in the northern communities to tell the story of the Franklin Expedition, where it happened.”
According to a memorandum of understanding, signed between Canadian and British governments in 1997, the U.K. maintained sovereign ownership over its Royal Navy ships but “assigns custody and control of the wrecks and their contents to the Government of Canada,” with the exception of any gold recovered.
The MOU goes on to say that recovered artifacts from the Erebus and Terror “of outstanding significance to the Royal Navy will be offered to Britain for display at an appropriate museum.”
“The 1997 MOU provides Parks Canada with care and custody of the wrecks and the artifacts. As we proceed to transfer ownership we will use the appropriate legal instrument at that time,” Parks Canada added in its Dec. 8 correspondence.
The National Maritime Museum is not within the scope of museums included under the umbrella of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
“The National Maritime Museum is not making claims to any of the artifacts that have been brought up by Parks Canada from the wrecks of HMS Erebus and Terror, and does not intend to do so,” Warrior clarified.
“We are grateful to be able to borrow material for the duration of the exhibition, and pleased to be able to lend objects from our collection in return.”
Separately, Nunavut Inuit organizations have claimed ownership over Franklin wrecks and relics citing their location within boundaries of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement—a constitutional document they say trumps federal policy.
Inuit Heritage Trust heritage manager, Ralph Kownak says talks with Parks Canada are still in the early stages, but that communication between the parties is “going very well.”
“They’re keeping us in the loop of what they’re doing with the U.K., so it’s going pretty good so far,” he said.
“The Kitikmeot Inuit Association and Parks Canada will be negotiating an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement after Parks Canada negotiates with the U.K. on the ownership of the artifacts and joint management and leasing.”
Nunavut’s department of Culture and Heritage would not respond to requests for comment.
Heritage facility lacking
Part of any future IIBA between Parks Canada and the KIA will address the storage of Franklin artifacts within Nunavut, which at this point is impossible because the territory lacks a modern facility capable of housing them.
In March, the federal government announced $16.9 million in funding for the continued investigation of Franklin’s two ships, the Erebus and Terror, as well as a visitor and field research centre in Gjoa Haven.
Gjoa Haven lies about 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) east of Terror Bay, where the Arctic Research Foundation research vessel Martin Bergmann discovered the HMS Terror last September after following a tip from Gjoa Haven Inuk and Canadian Ranger, Sammy Kogvik.
“Along with many other Franklin scholars, I very much support plans for a heritage center in Gjoa Haven, the hamlet nearest to these new discoveries, in which a collection of the newly-found Franklin artifacts should certainly find a home,” Potter said.
The IHT says work must commence to bring a modern facility to Nunavut.
“We don’t have a temperature controlled museum in Nunavut yet,” Kownak said.
“We want to own the artifacts, leave them in Nunavut, so people will pay to go see these artifacts, but that’s not the case because you need a special building to conserve those artifacts.”
Parks Canada is expected to continue its investigation of both the Erebus and Terror next year and will undoubtedly be unearthing additional artifacts, adding to the 55 artifacts already recovered from the Erebus.