The British Library Explores the Northwest Passage

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Just weeks after the long-anticipated discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s lost ships the British Library looks back on almost 400 years of a fascination with the fabled Northwest Passage.

From Charles II’s lavish personal atlas to 19th century woodcut illustrations and wooden maps crafted by Inuit communities, the exhibition features material from Europe, Canada and the Arctic, much of it on display for the first time, giving us incredible insights in to the mysterious area which has lured explorers like Franklin to their deaths.

The exhibition, curated by British Library curators Philip Hatfield and Tom Harper, focuses on three of the most eminent Arctic explorers to seek the Northwest Passage: Martin Frobisher, who discovered what we now describe as ‘fool’s gold’; Sir John Franklin, possibly the most famous British Arctic explorer; and Roald Amundsen, the first man to the South Pole and a member of the first crew to fly across the Arctic.

In telling their stories we see early first-hand accounts of life and conditions in the Arcticincredible maps showing our changing perceptions of the Northwest Passage, rare oral recordings of Inuit describing the arrival of explorers like John Ross, and even video footage of a failed attempt to fly across the Arctic.

Philip Hatfield, lead curator of the exhibition, says: ‘The location of HMS Erebus has reminded us of the pull the Arctic has on our imagination. For centuries explorers have searched for routes through and resources in the Arctic, and while men like Frobisher sought gold today’s searches are for black gold. Lines in the Ice looks at this long history of exploration, the threads that link it together and the reasons we are still interested in the Arctic today.’

Highlights of the exhibition also include quirky objects, such as a book of designs for the first inflatable boat which doubles up as a cloak (equipped with a sail that doubles up as an umbrella), as well as one of the first illustrations of Santa Claus (1890) to show the iconic character re-homed to the North Pole and in the incarnation we recognise today.

The exhibition is accompanied by an exciting project by our new Interactive Fiction Writer in ResidenceRob Sherman. Rob will be writing an interactive story and game to accompany the exhibition, funded by CreativeWorks London. See his work unfold on his blog diary.

Our series of events about the Arctic is headlined by Ryan Harris, a marine archaeologist who was part of the successful search for Sir John Franklin’s ship earlier this year. The events programme also includes a talk by our Writer in Residence and a debate on science in extreme climates. You can see the full programme here.

Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage runs from 14 November to 29 March 2015

Image: ‘A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, Moses Pitt, from The English Atlas (1680) - the personal atlas of King Charles II. Photograph courtsey of the British Library.

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