The Beechey Island Memorial Board at the Science Museum

A wooden board with a piece of metal secured to it.
“Memorial board relic from Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition.” Courtesy Science Museum Group Collection Online. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The moment I saw the Memorial Board, I said: “That’s a hunting trophy.”

Some hunter on the track of the Franklin Expedition – perhaps an officer from any one of the 1850-54 search expeditions – found a relic on Beechey Island, brought it home, secured it to a board, and hung it on a wall. Whoever he was, and wherever he displayed it, I’ll bet he told some capital stories about it.

We can only guess, because none of them have accompanied the relic. There’s very little information about it, and what little we have isn’t accessible right now. But now, for the first time, we have a photograph of it.

I’ve been on the track of this relic for a while now.

THE WELLCOME COLLECTION

I interviewed a former Science Museum archivist last year who’d actually unboxed and catalogued this part of the Wellcome Collection in the 1980s. She remembered the Memorial Board relic clearly, and was able to describe it to me. But nobody could find an image of it.

The Science Museum’s staff stepped in to help last year and reassured me that photography was in progress. When I asked again a couple of weeks ago, they gave me some good news and more information. And I’m delighted to see that the website has now been updated with new images.

As with all things Franklin, the Memorial Board image raises more questions than it answers. E.g. what on earth is this?

Detail of the Science Museum's Memorial Board relic.
Detail of the Memorial Board. Courtesy Science Museum Group Collection Online. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

PROVENANCE OF THE RELICS

All we know about these items is that they were bought at JC Steven’s Auction House at 38 King Street, Covent Garden on 2 December 1919.

Stevens Auction House in Covent Garden, c. 1835.
Stevens Auction House in Covent Garden, c. 1835.

I’ve only been able to track down one copy of the catalogue for this particular sale, and it is held at the Wellcome Library. It has not been digitised and so can only be viewed in person in the Library, which is currently closed until at least 7 October 2020.

The acquisition ledgers of the Wellcome Collection have been digitised and are available online.

There are no relics showing up in late 1919, 1920 or 1921, but acquisitions appear to have been added haphazardly, possibly on a box-by-box basis, and not chronologically.

In any case, the catalogue system has been revised several times since the early 20th Century. The current numbers lead to entirely different items in the historic ledger.

However, the cataloguing system does show us something interesting. The Memorial Board is number A25478. The other purported relics are A651466 to A651470. So it’s unlikely that the items were acquired as one batch, but we won’t know for sure until the Wellcome Library reopens.

BOXED UP

The bad news is that the purported relics are also out of our reach. The Science Museum boxed them up some time ago ahead of the collection’s move to a purpose-built National Collections Centre in Wiltshire. At present, this is due to open in 2023, but this timeline may be affected by the pandemic.

The Science Museum Group website has already hosted some basic information on these items. They’re not new: we even had photographs of the razors. And the Remembering the Franklin Expedition group on Facebook has already had at least one lively discussion about them.

SPARK DEBATE

But I hope that the new photography will spark a lot of debate about these items between now and whenever researchers are able to examine them in person. Until then, here are the Science Museum’s relics:

A25478Memorial board, wood, holding piece of iron, relic from Franklin expedition left at Beechey Island, Northwest territories of Canada, 1845-1846.

A651466Buckle, iron, relic from Franklin expedition, probably part of ship, found in Northwest Territories of Canada, probably English, 1800-1845.

A651467Head of gouging instrument, iron, relic from Franklin expedition, found in Northwest Territories of Canada, probably part of ship, probably English, 1800-1845.

A651468Razor, iron, retractable blade, relic from Franklin expedition, found in North West Territories of Canada, English, 1800-1845.

A651469Unidentified piece of metal, iron, possibly part of ship, relic of Franklin expedition, found in Northwest Territories of Canada, probably English, 1800-1845.

A651470Razor, iron, blade only, relic from Franklin expedition, found in Northwest Territories of Canada, English, 1800-1845.

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