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Stories and Maps: the Franklin expedition

On the way to Iqaluit, we had a stopover in Ottawa. On the recommendation of Andrew, my son, we went to see the Franklin exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History.

There were many aspects of the exhibit design which caught my imagination. At the entrance, a projector system showed the history of exploration routes into the Arctic. Each route revealed more of the known geography of the North. These images served to provide a graphic context for the Franklin expedition. The layout of the ship on the floor of the gallery again provided a tremendous sense of the size and plan of the individual vessel. Third, and most revealing to myself, was the combination of Inuit storytelling with current artwork.

While listening to the recordings, it became clear that the role of storytelling in the oral Inuit culture was critical to our understanding of the fate of the Franklin expedition. These stories of the landscape provided a narrative which allowed the Inuit to travel from place to place. The stories were retold in the igloos by the elders. They replaced maps, although there were wooden maps carved to identify islands and inlets.

Once we arrived in Iqaluit, I had access to books. I found Woodman’s book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. This gives more background to the many insights at the exhibition. A second book, on Andrew’s bookshelf, was Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to TalkExpeditions and Encounters. It includes An Expedition to the Pole p 29-64. This essay is brilliant, divided into several headings: The Land, The People, The Technology. These topics and their focus on the Franklin Expedition reverberates with the exhibition (written in 1982).

Meanwhile, as I was flying from Ottawa to Iqaluit, I was re-reading Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places p 17.

“I also decided that, as I traveled, I would draw up a map to set against the road atlas. A prose map that would seek to make sense of the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again, or that would record them before they vanished for good. This would be a map, I hoped, that would not connect up cities, towns, hotels and airports. Instead, it would link headlands, cliffs, beaches, mountain tops, tors, forests, river-mouths and waterfalls.”

One last story. Talking to Julia last night, I found that she had been hired to teach Map Making at Nunavut Arctic College. On the side table, I found, Map Use: Reading, Analysis, Interpretation by Kimmerling et al. Six hundred and fifty pages. With a Foreword by Jack Dangermond at Esri.

It seems that we have come ‘full circle’.


David C. Woodman. 2015. Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. Second Edition

Annie Dillard. 1982. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.

Robert MacFarlane. 2007. The Wild Places. Penguin Books.

Jon Kimerling et al. 2016. Map Use: Reading, Analysis, Interpretation.

Elaine Anselin. Closing in on Franklin. Up Here. Jan/Feb 2018. p 55-62



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