From death in the ice to life in the museum: Absence, affect and mystery in the Arctic

Ever since its disappearance in the mid-19th-century, the fate of the ‘Franklin expedition’ has attracted interest and intrigue. The story has been told and re-told but remained one of ‘mystery’ into the early 21st-century. When the expedition’s two ships were finally located, the narrative shifted with the reappearance of long-absent objects and materials – in turn, posing challenges for museum curators seeking to re-present the story. In this article, we conduct a side-by-side examination of two sites: the 1845 Franklin expedition in the Northwest Passage and the 2017 Death in the Ice exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. We juxtapose these to consider the forces unleashed by the ships’ absence and their presence-ing first in Victorian times and then in the UK museum space today. By analysing the sites through the concept of ‘absent presence’, the agency of both the material and the immaterial is powerfully highlighted. Via an emphasis on the relation of the absent presence to the sensing bodies of others, we consider the concept as simultaneous and co-constitutive. That is, absence and presence ought to be understood not as objective states, but as becoming-absent and becoming-present: processes that are dependent on curated and embodied sensibilities.

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Volume 39 Issue 1

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