Death in the Ice—The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition

Finalist 2019

The Franklin Expedition left London in 1845 to confirm a Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. After entering the Arctic, HMS Erebus and Terror disappeared. The Canadian Museum of History decided to curate a comprehensive account of what is considered one of the greatest mysteries of the modern era. Then, early in the exhibition development, Parks Canada found the wreck of HMS Erebus! Artifacts recovered from the wreck went in the show as well, extending the history into the 21st century.

To structure the narrative and hold visitor attention, the “chapters” of the story were presented in different settings, from the vast Arctic to Victorian London into cramped wooden ships to forensic labs to underwater shipwrecks. With carefully controlled transitions from zone to zone, the visitor didn’t see too much too soon; at the same time, there were opportunities to see into further zones, creating foreshadowing.

People are already very familiar with the settings presented so just enough visual cues allow visitors to access the images in their imaginations that popular culture has already inspired. Very large images provide an immediate cue to time period, using oil paintings, daguerreotypes and illustrations for pre-twentieth century settings and then color photographs for contemporary ones.

The design team strove to open up archival materials, using them as immersive tools to make human connections, such as creating a full-scale 3D floorplan of the ship. The exhibition was well-received, exceeding forecast attendance by over 20 percent.

Design Firms: 

Canadian Museum of History


Canadian Museum of History

Project Area: 

6,200 sq ft

Open Date: 

May 2018

Project Budget: 


Photo Credits: 

Janet Kimber (photography), Canadian Museum of History (videography)

Design Team: 

Kerry McMaster Wassenaar (lead scenographer), Claire Champ (creative developer), Karen Ryan (curator), Danielle Goyer (project manager), Stéphane Breton (graphic designer), Chantal Baril (interim head of scenography), Eric Pellerin (head of scenography and media productions), Dave Deevey (digital media)


Parks Canada, Heather Campbell, Mike Martel ( illustrations); Brian Schlachta, Don McMillan, Paul Huppe (digital media); Robin Dumas (soundscapes); Light Factor (lighting)


CMH Display and Technical Services (artifact mounts and models), National Maritime Museum (artifact mounts), Expozone (fabrication, graphics)

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