In this episode of our blog, PDRA Liz Walsh reflects on the enduring (British?) fascination with signifiers of Arctic exploration, their role in the national interest, and what it means for the study of Arctic objects.
On 2 September, 2022, a joint press release from the U.K.’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Arts Council England, and Arts Minister Lord Parkinson of Whiteley Bay announced the sale of a flag associated with British history of Arctic exploration. The flag in question had once belonged to Sir Henry Kellett, one of many officers sent by the Royal Navy to aid in the search for Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. It had not been the flag of Kellett’s ship, HMS Resolute, but of one of the sledges the ship carried on its Arctic voyage.
Per the press release, the flag’s connection to the decades-long search for Franklin made it an object of national historic import. A three-month ‘export bar’ was therefore to be put in place, allowing time for a U.K. buyer to express interest in its purchase at the recommended price of £120,000.
As of 23 December 2022, an update to the website of Arts Council England noted that the flag has been placed under a second deferral, meaning at least one buyer has expressed interest in its purchase. The potential buyer would have three months in which to raise funds to complete the purchase. If this failed or they otherwise choose to back out of the deal, an export licence will most likely be granted.
The sledge flag’s sale raises questions about the value of such items in the present day. As the Arts Council England case report notes, this flag is not unique, nor the best example of its type. There are several such sledge flags in public and private collections in the UK, and it is not clear that there is a huge appetite among potential institutional buyers for another. Notably, the report states that the flag ‘has little in the way of research value.’
In spite of these qualifications, the council still chose to instate the export bar.
The Kellett sledge flag’s restriction from international sale provides an opportunity to reflect on the meanings assigned to the ephemera of Arctic exploration. Far from being fixed, these meanings are the result of the cultural, historical, and academic contexts in which objects are exhibited, and as such change substantially over time.
When the officers and crewmen of the 1852 Franklin search returned from the Arctic in 1854, they brought more than just news of the search’s progress. With them was a collection of ethnographic objects, scientific specimens and, naturally, the specialised equipment they had brought to facilitate their explorations. Many of these items were collected by one enthusiast, John Barrow junior, the son of the well-known Sir John Barrow, the former Second Secretary to the Admiralty. The collection of cultural and natural materials he amassed and donated to the British Museum would draw the attention of a vast and varied audience. In these early displays, cultural objects collected from Inuit, samples of Arctic minerals, and both models and full-sized examples of the equipment carried by the searchers were all exhibited together.
In the 1850s, these disparate objects were all understood to tell different parts of the same story – that of the dangers and excitement associated with the search for John Franklin and, more generally, British exploration in the Arctic. In the one hundred twenty years since Kellett set off on his leg of the search, the objects from the Barrow Arctic collection have found themselves spread across different institutions and have been used to present different narratives.
A beautiful model umiaq (Am1855,1126.101.a) collected by Kellett somewhere near Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, is one of several objects known to have been acquired by him and donated by Barrow. That piece was part of the initial display of Arctic materials put on by the museum, as documented by W P Snow in 1858. The umiaq was housed in a case with a range of objects: portraits of Franklin, the Arctic Council formed to investigate his disappearance, and a pair of well-loved sled dogs; medals given to earlier Arctic explorers by Queen Victoria; and dozens of models of both the searchers’ equipment and objects of Inuit material culture.
The umiaq model would later be displayed by the museum in other contexts. Recently, it appeared in the British Museum’s special exhibition Arctic: Culture and Climate. In that exhibit, the model’s origins and the circumstances of its collection were not mentioned, though a sail displayed with it made passing reference to acquisition by the Royal Navy. Both umiaq and sail were instead used to demonstrate how the Inupiat of the region once used the natural materials available to them, and how their modes of transport were and remain well-adapted to navigating the Arctic environment. A present-day umiaq is shown further on in the exhibition, in use by an Inupiaq whaling crew.
The recent exhbition’s emphasis on Indigenous material culture and its role in Arctic life is quite different from the circumstances of the model’s initial exhibition. Where it once helped to tell the story of British exploration in a dangerous and far off region, the British Museum now used it to help tell a pointed, timely story about Indigenous knowledge under threat from climate change.
The objects from the Franklin searches that were donated by Barrow to the British Museum were eventually split among multiple institutions. In the 1850s, the aims of ‘universal museums’ like the British Museum were not yet far removed from their ‘cabinet of curiosity’ forebears. However, by the 1930s, animal and mineral specimens were transferred to the Natural History museum (at the time the formally affiliated ‘British Museum: Natural History’); in 1938, the explorers’ ‘equipment’ models were traded to the Royal Geographical Society. The 20th century saw all three of these institutions refine their individual scopes. Their typological associations came to define how their collections – and the knowledges those collections represented – would be interpreted.
The Kellett sledge flag was never on public display, but other objects of personal value to the men of Erebus and Terror and their would-be rescuers were regularly exhibited for interested publics. Upon its initial return to Britain, the flag might have courted the same kind of attention. Now, however, public attachment to imperial maritime history has waned and has been replaced by more distaste for ‘exploration’ and its colonial implications. As audiences push for the representation of more diverse narratives in public institutions, and museums do the introspective work of examining the colonial origins of their collections, the history and associations that the flag represents may ultimately fail to appeal to 21st century audiences.
Image 1: Sledge flag of Sir Henry Kellett, one of several participants in the search for John Franklin. Photograph available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/120000-flag-from-sledge-of-british-polar-explorer-at-risk-of-leaving-uk
Image 2: Model umiaq from Barrow Arctic collection, collected by Sir Henry Kellett at the request of John Barrow junior and donated to the British Museum in 1855. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.Home