Monday, December 25, 2023

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormick, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormick’s account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Franklin's knowledge of the Daguerreotype Process

One of the questions about the Daguerreotypes by Beard that were auctioned off last week at Sotheby's has been whether or not Beard's operator would have used a reversing prism or mirror (there could also have possibly been more than one operator, and more than one sitting). Harry Goodsir noted the photographer's arrival, though he mistook the process, calling him a "Talbotypist," as he had some experiece with that process, and had sat for a portrait using it, back in Scotland.

Franklin himself, though, was already quite familiar with the Daguerreotype process, and indeed with Richard Beard's studio. Francis Russell Nixon, the newly-consecrated Bishop of Van Diemen's Land, had in fact brought with him several of Beard's Daguerreotypes when he arrived in Hobart Town in 1843, and it's very likely Franklin saw them. Nixon also showed them to Alfred Bock, who was so delighted by them that he embarked on what was to be a lengthy career as one of Australia's pioneering photographers. Bock tried to establish a commercial studio, but was discouraged when George Barron Goodman -- who had purchased a sub-patent from Beard -- complained about Beck's advertisements. This pushed the opening of his establishment to 1847, though he seems to have been privately active as a photographer throughout the period of the delay.

Dr. William Bland, by Goodman
Goodman had opened his first studio in Sydney in 1842, urging local citizens to "endure half a minute of immobility" to obtain a fine portrait, using a structure he built on the roof of the Royal Hotel in Sydney. He was not, alas, as successful in this endeavor as Beard; his images came out rather dark, one local reviews spoke of a "want of life" while another decried their "cadaverous and unearthly appearance." The surviving images don't seem quite as awful as all that, though many do seem to lack contrast. For our purposes, what matters is that Goodman left Sydney for Hobart in 1843, opening a Daguerreian studio in a boarding house at 20 Patrick Street, which was in business from that summer to February of 1844. After his departure, he continued the pattern of running his studio out of temporary quarters, and after a few years of further moves, he quit the business and retired to the Continent, dying in Paris in 1851. 

The takeway from all this is that Franklin, either through Bishop Nixon (who became a close friend of the Franklins), Bock (who was the son of the ex-convict painter Thomas Bock, known for his portrait of the Franklins' adopted daughter Mathinna), or Goodman, was surely acquainted with the Daguerreotype process. Further confirmation comes via an item published in the very first issue of the Tasmanian Journal -- the organ of the Royal Society of Tasmania, founded by the Franklins -- in which an excerpt from a letter from Dr. Richardson to Franklin was published, touching specifically on Daguerreotypes, their use in photographing natural history specimens (!), and a method for turning them directly into printing plates in order to reproduce them. While this method -- which was destructive of the original Daguerreotype -- never caught on, the fact that Franklin and Richardson were discussing it with such easily familiarity as early as 1840 seems quite clear evidence that both men had already taken a keen interest in the process, even before local operators arrived in Hobart.

courtesy Sotheby's
So when, in May of 1845, Franklin sat for what (so far as we know) was his first and only Daguerreotypic portrait, he had been familiar with the technology for more than five years -- and, I suspect, would have noticed the presence or absence of a mirror or prism on the front of the camera, and deduced (or inquired about) its purpose. In either orientation, his Daguerreotype shows the medals on the "short" side (underside) of his uniform, which is the wrong side, so he must have anticipated their being reversed.  And I believe he would have noticed if Beard's operator had used a mirror or prism -- so my surmise would be that he did not. Beard's may well have advertised -- and produced -- non-reversed images, but that may just as readily been done in the copying process as when the image was first taken. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Richard Beard, the Daguerreotype and the Images of the Franklin Expedition

Guest post by Frank Michael Schuster

The month of May 1845, when Sir John Franklin's expedition set sail started out as a cold and unfriendly one throughout Europe. An outbreak of the flu was raging in London, which had also caught the expedition's leader. But by mid-May the weather improved and the 15th and 16th of May were sunny and noticeably warmer than the days before and after. Perhaps that was why a camera operator, or as they called it in those days, a Daguerreotypist from one of Richard Beard's studios, was just then coming on board HMS Erebus. He had been commissioned by Lady Jane Franklin to take photographs of Sir John and the other officers of the flagship, as well as Franklin's second-in-command Francis Crozier. With the help of a heavy curtain and a simple wooden chair, a makeshift studio was created on deck, where the men, supervised by the officers, still stowed provisions and other supplies. This might be why the officers in the pictures are wearing only their "undress uniform" instead of one of the more formal ones usually more appropriate to the occasion. Some, like Lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, are not even wearing their coats given the surprisingly mild weather. For, when it was his turn to be photographed, he simply borrowed “Fitzjames' coat [...], to save myself the trouble of getting my own,” as he later wrote to his father (Potter et. al., May We Be Spared 146). Unfortunately, we know nothing about the wind on those days, but the camera operator obviously wanted to take advantage of the sunny day.

The entrepreneur Richard Beard (1801-1885), whose employee was taking the pictures, was interested in everything he could make money from. That is why he had become fascinated by the new possibilities of photography. A few weeks after the new invention by he Frenchman Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) in 1839 he had acquired a license for his process for England and Wales. Knowing that Daguerre's process only produced a one-off image,  Beard also took an interest in the calotype process invented by William Fox Talbot (1800-1877). Talbot’s pictures could be reproduced relatively easily, but Beard could not come to an agreement with the inventor. 

figure 1
So Beard set out to solve the three major problems his customers had with the daguerreotype as quickly as possible: The exposure time was too long for portraits, the images were slightly distorted and mirror-inverted, and they could not be duplicated. By hiring the chemist John Frederick Goddard (1795-1866) and by using an American camera patented in March 1840 in England he was able to reduce the exposure time considerably to under a minute. As the inventors Alexander S. Wolcott (1804 -1844) & John Johnson (1813-1871) did not use a lens, but a concave mirror instead, the images were not reversed, and thus the second problem was solved. (figure 1) That the images were slightly distorted, just like today, hardly bothered anyone, apart from the Duke of Wellington, who complained that his nose was too big in the image. 

The pictures were tiny, just 2 x 2.5 inches (5 x 6 cm), a format usually referred to as the “Ninth Plate”, because the plates originally produced for the photographs could be cut into nine pieces. But as many people were used to miniature paintings, which had been very en vogue before, this was not a problem, which left just one, problem to solve, and Beard again did what others didn't.

Figure 2

The Frenchman Antoine Claudet (1797-1867), also held a license from Daguerre since 1839 and thanks to this was able to open his own studio in London in 1841, despite Beard’s license for the whole of England. Claudet used two cameras (figure 2). In this way he got two nearly identical pictures at once. Beard’s operator's used their relatively easy reloadable camera a to take two pictures in quick succession. As John Johnson also had invented a device for preparing and polishing the silver-coated copper photographic plates, there was no need to do this by hand anymore. Thus Beard’s operators were faster then Claudet's, as an astonished Journalist of The Spectator reported on 4 September 1841.  This led to the erroneous surmise that Beard's camera allowed two photos to be taken at the same time by adjusting a mirror. 

Figure 3
In early 1843 the problem of how to duplicate a daguerreotype was finally solved, when Wolcott and Johnson invented a copying apparatus. It was basically a daguerreotype camera to photograph daguerreotypes, which additionally was suitable for enlarging and could be used as a projector (figure 3). Using mirrors, the copy was reverted to the original. This meant, in order to obtain an identical image of the original, it was necessary to make a copy of the copy. The inventors themselves came to London to set it up in Beard's studios. After all, the customers had become more demanding and expected larger pictures. 

Therefore, at the same time Beard also changed his camera. From then on, he used a camera that could take pictures in the "sixth plate" format, that is 2.75 x 3.25 inches (7 x 8 cm). Even the ever critical William Henry Fox Talbot called Johnson’s and Wolcott’s improved Daguerreotypes in March 1843 “the most perfect thing of the kind I have yet seen."

But unfortunately little is known about the new camera itself. The only thing certain is that it used the powerful lens newly invented by the Hungarian-German mathematician Joseph Petzval (1807-1891) and distributed throughout Europe by the Austrian optician Friedrich von Voigtländer (1812-1878).

As the images were now taken with a lensed camera, it was usually assumed that they were now inverted. As the images of the Franklin expedition officers where taken with the same camera, it was (up to now) thought that the daguerreotypes of Sir John Franklin, Commander James Fitzjames, Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, the purser Charles H. Osmer and the surgeon Stephen S. Stanley from the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute are originals, as well as the images of Captain Francis R. M. Crozier, James Fitzjames, the mate Charles Frederick Des Voeux, and the assistant surgeon Henry Goodsir, which have now surfaced, because these images are inverted, while the others would be copies. But as with everything related to the Franklin expedition, it is not that easy. 

Figure 4 
And yet, a year after the expedition had left England, Beard’s competitor Claudet proudly declared in an advertisement in The Times on 20 May 1846 that all his portraits were now taken with “the right and left side in their natural position,” whereupon the angry Beard responded in the same paper on 9 June by pointing out that his pictures had always been non-reversed, "first by means of his patent concave reflector, and also (for more than three years past) by the use of a reflector in combination with a lens." (The Times, 9 June 1846; figure 4).

Figure 5
What this reflector looked like, we don’t know for sure, as we don’t know much about the camera improved by Johnson and Wolcott. The easiest solution to get a non-reversed image was to put an adjustable mirror in front of the lens at a 45° angle, as for example a lens marketed from the French photographer Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg (1810-1875) shows. (figure 5)

 The problem with such a simple device was that it easily shifted, especially in windy conditions. Unfortunately, we neither know if it was used at all, if the camera was aimed at or past the sitter, nor what the wind conditions were like during that particular days. It may be that the camera operator sometimes used the correction mirror and sometimes not. It could very well be that all the newly discovered daguerreotypes are originals, whether or not they have been reversed. The two mirror-inverted shots of Fitzjames might indeed be originals, as they are not identical. The same may be true of the different shots of Des Voeux, although one is mirrored and the other is not. Perhaps the original also went to the family and one of the surviving daguerreotypes is a copy. 

However, most of the surviving images of the officers of the Erebus, of which there are two identical photographs, are not reversed. If they are not both copies, then Beard's employees must even have made copies of copies, which may well be the case, given the high demand. James Fitzjames alone wanted three or four pictures, as he wrote in a letter. (see Potter et. al. May We Be Spared p. 117).

 Looking at the Illustrated London News of 13 September 1851 (p. 329) does not help either. Although the images, or rather engravings after the daguerreotypes, finally appeared in the press the comment published with them tells us nothing about how they where taken. On the contrary: It even contains at least one major error: While it's true that Richard Beard had supplied the Franklin expedition with a complete Daguerreotype apparatus, as the author of the comment to the images explained, this was probably not the same camera with which the pictures were taken. As the polishing apparatus invented by Johnson in 1841 has been discovered in the wrack of HMS Erebus recently, we know, that the camera on board the ship must be Wolcott's original mirror camera, as the polishing device was made for ninth-plate images, as Peter Carney has noted.  It's a forgivable mistake more than half a decade after the pictures were taken, especially as the author was not a specialist in daguerreotypes but rather in maritime matters, as it is none other than William Richard O’Byrne, (1823–1896) the author of the “Naval Biographical Dictionary” published two years earlier in 1849.

 So what remains but confusion? 

If photos were indeed only taken on one day, and the camera operator only came back on the second day to present the pictures, or if the studio was still in the same place on the second day as it was on the first, it may even be possible to tell from a close examination of the images whether and when a corrective mirror was used. For Daguerreotypes are so clear that one can sometimes sense the reflection of the camera and the camera operator behind it in the pupils of the sitter. Or since there is at least one shot (that of Le Vesconte) where you can see where he was sitting, you might even be able to tell from the reflections on the caps where the camera was pointed. 

But this is a matter for others, for whom the question of whether it is an original or not is more important than for me and who, above all, have more patience than I .

The author would like to thank Gina Koellner, Mary Williamson, Peter Carney, Michael Robinson, Bill Schulz and last but not least Russell Potter for their inspiration and helpful comments.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The newfound Franklin Daguerreotypes

Courtesy of Sotheby's
Sometimes, historical artifacts can be doubly lost -- lost in the sense that their present location is unknown, but also lost in the sense that nobody even suspected that they existed. Such is the case with the set of Daguerreotypes soon to go before the hammer at Sotheby's -- they are apparently Lady Franklin's own presentation set -- and will offer yet another doubling of the views we now possess.
The main reason that no one was previously aware of them -- other than the fact that their owner, a direct descendant of Sir John, is said to have been very private -- is that we thought we already had them. That is, we'd assumed that the fine, gold-toned ones at the Scott Polar Research Institute -- given as part of the Lefroy bequest (these were Sopia Cracroft's relatives) were Lady Franklin's set. And yet, all the while, this extraordinary set had remained in family hands, well and quietly looked after, in what appears to be its original presentation case from the firm of Richard Beard.

A close look at the set reveals that it's not completely unseen -- in fact, this very set was used as the source for the full-page woodcut in the Illustrated London News. Both the left-right orientation and the order of the Daguerreotypes match; this makes it quite clear that this set was the likley source. Somewhat confusingly, the ILN seems to say that the set they engraved was based on Beard's set, but if so it must have been identically arranged. Another curious feature, noticed by Peter Carney, is that -- judging from the buttons -- some of these images are copy Daguerreotypes, since the copying process reverses the reversed image and puts the buttons back on the "right" side!

The one other set of images that we have -- the mounted copies now in the Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock --  seems to have used the same source Daguerreotypes, but in a different order. This set is associated with Franklin's daughter Eleanor, and there's reason to regard it as her personal one (it's since come to light that the paper prints were more probably made around 1875, so a set of the originals certainly remained in family hands at that time).  All this of course leaves even more mystery around the long-known Daguerreotypes at Scott Polar, many of which show the subjects in different poses, and which set is missing any image of Francis Crozier -- had Sophy purchased some "second poses" at the same time as her aunt's set? Did some of the officers not claim their likenesses?

But whatever the actual differences in arrangement and provenance, it's clear that, as Sotheby's has indicated, the set they have on offer is the "premier" set -- one assembled at the time, in a contemporary case that may very well have been made for them by Beard's. In his letter of May 19th, Reid underscores this point: "Lady Franklin hase ordered all the officers Likeness to bee taken and mine amongst the Rest, with my uniform on - She keeps them all by herself." All that is consistent with the newly known cased set.

Image on left Courtesy of Sotheby’s
So what do we learn from these new images? Well, for one that the engraver for the ILN was not a terribly good portraitist; many of the faces seem quite wrong, and (by way of example) Reid seems a good two stone lighter in his woodcut. But now that we can compare the original Daguerreotypes to the paper copies, we can see how much was lost in the translation. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the images of Francis Crozier, who seems almost a different man in his Daguerreian version; as my friend and fellow Franklin researcher Logan Zachary put it, 
"It's an extraordinarily different Crozier, despite being the exact same photograph.  His face has quite literally been "fleshed out" now, with details added back in that we didn't know we were missing.  His eyes and chin have much more definition, and somehow even his lips and nose look fuller in the new image.  He simply looks like a different man.  The worried, almost indecisive look from the old photograph melts away -- he looks like a Captain now, someone who gave orders."
Part of this, of course, is due to the careful gold-toning and tinting with which these new images were prepared, in addition to the going-over of all the buttons and hat-bands with a translucent golden ink. But the level of detail is simply magnitudes higher; Calotypes are paper prints from paper negatives, and are by their nature a tad "grainy"; Daguerreotypes are metal plates, sensitized and developed by vapors, and their thin skin of exactitude has a grain size not much larger that a molecule of silver halide, roughly 1-2 micrometers.

Image Courtesy Sotheby's
Seeing Crozier whole is thus a powerful experience on so many levels. Some, I know, might wish they'd skipped the golden ink, and its application to his slightly-scrunched hatband looks a tad silly -- but, combined with the flesh tones of the face, it seems to me to add considerably to the sense of "presence." Daguerreotypes, as a form, have that particular ghostly quality, one that the cultural historian Walter Benjamin called the "aura." And -- though there is nothing quite like holding a Dag in one's hand and tilting it until, in a feat of angular magic, lo, the apparition comes! -- it seems to me that these crisply digital copies have nearly that same aura. They will give me, and many others for whom this is such an essential story, food for thought for a long while yet.

Friday, May 26, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (Part 3 of 3)

Charles Dagneau opening a drawer of relics for myself and Mary Williamson 
Of course, throughout the tour all of us felt immensely excited to learn more about the vital work being done on the Franklin relics, but we couldn't help ourselves if the most exciting prospect of all was to see conserved relics that we could actually examine, and even hold in our (gloved) hands! Our guide for this portion of the tour was Parks archaeologist Charles Dagneau, whom most of us had first met back at the Death in the Ice opening in Ottawa in March of 2018. Now, five years later, we had the immense good fortune to visit the twin vaults that store conserved artifacts -- Franklin's amongst many others -- and really see them up close.

Fragment of the wheel of HMS Erebus
There are two vaults, as it happens -- one in which the humidity is kept higher, so as to prevent any further drying-out of organic (wood, leather, ropeage, etc.) artifacts -- and one in which the humidity is kept low, so as to minimize the chance of rust or corrosion on metal objects. We visited the high-humidity room first, where we saw the wheel of the Breadalbane (see last post) as well as the section of the wheel of HMS Erebus. It was a remarkable feeling to grasp -- again, with gloved hands -- the wheel that Franklin and his helmsmen had grasped when steering their ship amidst the Arctic ice! Also in this room we saw ceramic objects -- indifferent to moisture as they are -- including several of the transferware and other plates and serving vessels so far recovered. Charles explained to us the how the quality of the China gave an indication of those who dined upon it: the Blue Willow plates would have been used by the crew in the forecastle, while the Whampoa ones were likely from Franklin's own table in the great cabin, or else the officers' mess.

We then went to the room of metal objects, which I'd been particularly curious to see. Among the stars there was the still-unidentified "scientific instrument," which is visible in the photo at top -- it was far smaller than I'd pictured it, and more delicate; clearly it had been made with care and precision, but for what purpose we don't yet know. 

The heavy metal object
Nearby, I spotted a smaller, heavier metal object -- it had a handle shaped rather like one might see on a large rubber stamper, but was all solid brass; the underside disclosed a flat surface, within which was a smaller rectangle with a small half-moon cutaway on one side. I was struck at once by the fact that the square seemed similar in proportion to the Franklin daguerreotypes made by the operator from Richard Beard's firm. I knew that, as part of the Daguerreotype process, the silver-covered copper plates had to be carefully polished to a mirror-like finish, and it struck me that the object might have been used for such polishing.

After our tour, I had to head back home to Rhode Island -- I'd driven to Ottawa -- and didn't get back until quite late. The next day, looking at the image of that metal object, I decided I'd send it to Bill Schultz, a friend and collector whose article on the Franklin Daguerreotypes is a standard reference in the field. He was quite excited, and agreed with my inference; he in turn sent the photos to Mike Robinson, the president of the Daguerreian Society and one of the world's top experts on the historical process.

Johnson's Patent
Mike at once recognized it as part of a plate-polishing apparatus patented by John Johnson in 1841; the identification was made all the more certain because Johnson himself was a business associate of Richard Beard! If, as described in the Illustrated London News, the Beard apparatus used to take the officers' portraits in 1845 was the same as was stowed aboard ship, it would make perfect sense that it would have included Johnson's device. However, on checking the object's measurements, Peter Carney realized that it corresponded with the smaller, ninth-plate format (the Franklin portraits were sixth-plates); based on this, Mike said it's more likely that a different camera, a Wolcott model which used a tin mirror in the place of a lens, was the one Beard supplied to the expedition (Wolcott was also a business partner of Johnson, and his camera is sometimes called the Wolcott-Johnson camera).

So now we have something we didn't have before: clear evidence that indeed such an apparatus was aboard HMS "Erebus," and that, assuming it was used as intended, Daguerreotypes were almost certainly made during the expedition. It's only one small step to add to the hope that someday such plates may be recovered; if they are, they'll be the earliest photographs ever taken in the Arctic!

In conclusion, I'd like to extend our warm and collective thanks to Jonathan Moore, Charles Dagneau, Cindy Lee Scott, and everyone else we met for their tremendous generosity in giving us a glimpse of the less-visible -- but extraordinarily important -- work they do in these labs.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (part 2 of 3)

Charles Dagneau, Cindy Lee Scott, and Jonathan Moore
Our tour now commenced in earnest. One of the first staff members we met was Cindy Lee Scott, who among her other responsibilities is in charge of the making of replicas of artifacts for display. She was particularly excited to show us her new and larger 3D printer, along with a series of preliminary versions of the replica of the sword hilt found aboard HMS "Erebus." Through looking at these alongside one another, we could see how corrections were made, including those of precise scale, before the final version for the Death in the Ice was produced. Later on, we were able to see the original hilt; it was remarkable to see how every exact detail had been matched.

Trial hilts
Cindy Lee then continued guiding our tour, taking us to other departments such as the reproduction lab, the paper lab, and finally the objects lab. There, we saw numerous artifacts still undergoing various processes to stabilize their materials. In a large tank, we saw the recovered cannon, now down to its final few baths, its surface looking as smooth and sharp as it must have when it was mounted aboard ship. Later, we saw the three cannonballs that were found inside its bore; they'd been difficult to extract, explained Parks archaeologist Charles Dagneau, and had to eventually be mechanically "scooped" out. Cindy Lee's enthusiasm for her work, and the excitement she and other staff based at the lab felt about the process of conserving the recovered items from the ship, came through loud and clear.

Near these tanks, we also saw a freeze-dryer, in which paper, wood, and certain other organic items were being treated. Here, the goal is to extract all moisture, something which sometimes follows, and sometimes precedes, other treatment. Wood, of course, can pose a special challenge, as when it dries it also loses a good portion of some of its internal material; this then has to be replaced with polyethylene glycol (known as PEG in the trade). Many will recall the wreck of the Mary Rose, which after being brought to the surface and reconstructed, had to constantly be sprayed with cold water to prevent this loss, and thereafter with PEG to replace the lost water so that each element would maintain its structural strength. The process is similar with much smaller wooden items.

The wheel of Breadalbane
Each type of wood or metal may have varying requirements, and artifacts with more than one type pose a special challenge. One of the most challenging ever was the ship's wheel of the Breadalbane, a supply ship and part of a Franklin search convoy, which sank off Beechey Island in 1853. It was removed by the ever-intrepid Joe MacInnis, who had discovered the wreck in 1980 -- against the strong advice of archaeologists -- and spent many many years in conservation due to its several types of wood and different metals. It rests now in a custom-made case in Parks's conservation facility, a testimony both to the Franklin search and the care and persistence of conservators.

In my next installment, I'll be taking my readers into that same vault where the wheel is stored -- specifically to those shelves on which those Franklin artifacts that have made it through the conservation process are stored!

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (part 1 of 3)

In a city filled with government buildings, this one doesn't stand out all that much, not from outside. Among other things, it contains a laboratory where children's toys are tested for their safety. But to me -- along with my colleagues Peter Carney and Mary Williamson -- this building stands alone, as it houses the most fascinating collection of materials in our world -- the artifacts brought up from HMS "Erebus" in the Canadian Arctic -- as well as the remarkable team of talented professionals who work with them, from the moment of their recovery to when -- sometimes months or even years later -- they have been fully conserved and stabilized, and may be stored or exhibited safely to generations to come.

Our host for our visit was Jonathan Moore, a veteran member of Parks's Underwater Archaeology Team (UAT) who last year became the the team's manager (many will recall his precursor, Marc-André Bernier, who recently retired). Jon helped us get cleared and signed in, then guided us down seemingly endless corridors with automatically-opening doors, reminiscent (as he noted) of the opening sequence of the 60's spy spoof Get Smart!

Behind the last set of these doors, we settled in for an introductory briefing in the team's work room, which includes a large bank of drawers for horizontal storage, a couple of glass cases with resin replicas of artifacts (Franklin's and others), and a table  featuring a meticulous model of the wreck of "Erebus," with a model Parks underwater archaeologist suspended near the as-yet-unretrieved ship's bell. Here we got a preview of the day's tour, which would include meeting many of the other staff members who check in, establish conservation plans, and keep track of, a wide and growing array of artifacts that range in size from a toothpick to a cannon.

When a new artifact arrives, having been stabilized sufficiently for transport, it's assessed in terms of what its conservation protocols should be. Metal articles, for instance, may require an extended soak in various solutions in order to help remove accretions, stabilize the metal's surface, and protect it against the eventual exposure to air. Wooden or paper items, in contrast, need mainly to be dried, but it's a process that requires extraordinary care. With wood, one later step requires a special polymer which, once absorbed by the wood, will fill the cavities between its fibers and give it sufficient strength to hold together. Paper is its own special case, especially if it appears to consist of multiple sheets, which require careful timing and great care to separate as the process finishes. For those reasons, the book or "portfolio" recovered during the 2022 dive season was unavailable for us to see.

And so, after our introductory briefing, we set out for our tour of the premises. First, we'd see the work area where the UAT's suits, helmets, and equipment are stored; then the area where replicas of the artifacts are carefully prepared; after that, a visit with the book and paper conservator, and the artist whose careful sketches help record each object and the location where it has been found. Lastly, of course, that area of the building which we were keenest to see -- the rooms where conserved relics are stored. Over the next few days, I'll be sharing the highlights of our visit, concluding with those much anticipated rooms -- it's my hope that my readers will get the sense of sharing in our excitement. So stay tuned!