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!