Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lost and Found: The Beechey Island Anvil Block

Courtesy Glenbow Museum
Just in the wake of this year's round of dives by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists, here's a powerful reminder that, sometimes, the most significant finds can be made right at home. Over the years, relics of the Franklin expedition -- the vast majority of which are in storage at various museums -- have sometimes gone missing -- not stolen, only misplaced, or perhaps imperfectly catalogued when paper records have given way to digital ones. One of the most intriguing of these items has long been the "anvil block" recovered from Beechey Island in 1850; although it was depicted in the newspapers and exhibited alongside other Franklin materials, it hasn't been seen in public since the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, and efforts to trace it at the National Maritime Museum had -- up until quite recently -- led to a dead end.

But now -- mirabile dictu! -- it has been found in the collection of the Glenbow Museum. The story of its loss and discovery now forms a fresh chapter of the renewed interest in the Franklin story. Back in the early 1960's the Royal United Services Institute -- which had charge of the majority of the Franklin relics -- was understaffed and underfunded, and a decision was made to refocus its mission, with the closure of the museum one of the consequences. The vast majority of its collections of Naval interest were transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but -- for reasons that are still unknown -- some of the items were made available to other institutions.

From Smucker (1857)
Some forward-looking curator at the Glenbow must have realized the significance of the return of such an object to the nation in which it was first found, and thus the anvil block -- which, in the interim of time, had become festooned with various metal items also found at Beechey -- was duly shipped to Calgary. It's a fascinating artifact -- not only because of its association with the discovery of Franklin's winter quarters at Beechey Island in 1850, but because of the still-unfolding mystery of the "metals" it wears. Early depictions of the anvil block -- such as the one at right from Samuel Smucker's 1857 compilation of Arctic narratives -- show it was unadorned when first retrieved. And yet, by some point in the late 1870's, someone -- presumably at the RUSI Museum -- had decided to fasten all manner of metal items to it, including a large eyebolt. The new photographs taken by the Glenbow show these items to be still very firmly in place, though some seem to have shifted a bit, and one (the horizontal metal strip shaped like a crenelated wall) has gone missing.

As depicted in 1878
The collections at the Glenbow are renowned for their depth as well as breadth -- but of course this has meant, in practice, that the proportion of materials is storage is high compared to the space for their display. Happily, the occasion of the rediscovery and conservation of the anvil block is also that of the opening of a new exhibition, curated in part by Travis Lutley, The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century.  The images and artifacts displayed are meant to show the  "contrast the cultural and technological differences between Arctic inhabitants and Arctic visitors." In this remarkable array of materials, the anvil block will be joined by Inuit tools and decorative items, a miniature Bible book-dummy carved from the wood of HMS "Terror," colored plates from the expedition narratives of Parry, Franklin, Back, and McClintock, and even an original tin of the notorious "Ox Cheek Soup." Among the highlights of the two-dimensional materials are some pencil sketches and watercolors made by Elisha Kent Kane, chromolithographs of Samuel Gurney Creswell's Arctic scenes, and William Bradford's striking "The English Arctic Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin." It's a dazzling array of visual and cultural materials, and one which brings back into the light many scenes and objects that have lingered too long in storage. With the "Death in the Ice" exhibit closing and heading to Mystic Seaport, it also offers Canadians as well as visitors from abroad a fresh opportunity to see significant materials relating to the Franklin expedition -- materials that happily are part of a permanent collection.

THE ENGLISH ARCTIC EXPEDITION IN SEARCH OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN (Courtesy Glenbow Museum)


The finding and identification of the anvil block is a story all its own. Starting with a copy of an engraving posted to the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page (the same one from which the detail above was taken) by Kristina Gehrmann in 2015, it led to a lively discussion involving William Battersby, Kat Stoetzel AndrĂ©s Paredes, and Randall Osczevski, but it was Regina Koellner who finally made the connection to a captioned illustration indicating that the mystery object was the anvil block. I then wrote to Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum, and she checked the records of the original transfer of items from the RUSI Museum to the NMM; the anvil block was not among them. It was a nearly two years later when I heard from Travis Lutley at the Glenbow; seeking to confirm the identity an object in their collections, he'd consulted Garth Walpole's book (which reproduces the illustrations above) and gotten in touch with Claire Warrior to confirm -- and the anvil block was found!

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