Norwegians beat us to Amundsen’s historic ship

This time it's the Norwegians who have outsmarted us.

This time it’s the Norwegians who have outsmarted us.

A few months ago, I wrote about how those wily Swedes beat us to the punch by talking Facebook into locating a massive, job-creating data centre in Lulea because the cold weather allowed Facebook to save big bucks cooling its giant computers.

Now the Norwegians have announced they are going to raise famous explorer Roald Amundsen’s ship, Maud, from its watery grave near Cambridge Bay, N.W.T. and ship it back to Norway. The plan is to make it the centrepiece of an impressive new museum.

I’m not one of those columnists who indulges in cheap and easy anti-Norwegian rhetoric. Some of my best friends are Norwegian. I am even married to a Norwegian-Canadian and eat more than my share of pickled herring and lefse (although I draw the line at lutefisk).

I just think it would be nice if we did something the Scandinavians wanted to copy. Beating Greenland 122-50 in the Arctic Winter Games medal count is very nice, but we need to think bigger.

It’s a real shame that no one in Canada got past the talking stage for a project to make the Maud the centrepiece of an impressive new Canadian museum. After all, the ship has Canadian connections. It was used for years by the Hudson’s Bay and was an early CBC transmission station.

Polar explorers have always felt a keen bond of circumpolar comradeship. Explorers and scientists from Norway, Canada, Russia and the other circumpolar countries are part of a community that goes deeper than rivalries over whose flag got to which high-profile cold spot first.

As we’ll learn at the MacBride Museum’s upcoming Cold Recall exhibit on the great explorer, Amundsen himself spent many years in the Canadian Arctic. The Inuit taught him many of the survival techniques that enabled him to reach the South Pole and survive, unlike the tragic Scott expedition.

I read Scott’s journal last winter, and it is heartbreaking to read the entry when he gets to the South Pole to find a Norwegian flag and a note from Amundsen already there. Scott was 33 days later than Amundsen, and the Norwegians and their fur parkas and dog sleds were already well on their way back to their supply ship by the time the British and their canvas coats and human-pulled sledges turned into the wind for their doomed trudge home.

It is fitting to have the Maud in a circumpolar museum that happens to be located in Norway. If the Norwegians do as nice a job with the Maud as the Swedes have done with their raised ship, the Vasa, the museum will be impressive indeed.

Interestingly, the Vasa Museum is also a big tourist attraction. Lots of people dismiss museums as economic engines. Perhaps this is due to being made to study the 1864 Charlottetown Conference once too often in high school. But more likely it is because they haven’t been to museums like the Vasa museum, Drumheller’s dinosaur centre, or Bolzano’s ice man museum in the Italian Alps.

I’ve been to all three, and they were absolutely crawling with tourists who would spend the day at the museum and then head off to spend more money having reindeer rydberg dinners (Stockholm), visit the hoodoos (Drumheller) or take guided alpine walking tours (Bolzano).

There are more examples. The D-Day beaches in Normandy have fantastic museums that play a critical part in drawing people to the region. Our northern friends in Russia’s Yamal region, who just sent a team to the Arctic Winter Games, are on a major tourism campaign. They have built a flagship museum around their frozen mammoth finds, including the baby that graced the cover of National Geographic. They also have plans to restore one of Stalin’s notorious northern gulag prisons, which seems ghastly but may work for them.

Many of these places are small regional centres like Whitehorse, which have to work harder than famous cities to attract visitors and get them to stay a bit longer. Each has decided that a flagship museum is a critical tourist draw.

There are a few things that elevate the successful museums in this category. Mackenzie, B.C., has the largest wood chipper in the world, yet visitors seem immune to its spell. The St. Roch museum housing the RCMP’s Arctic patrol vessel in Vancouver is excellent, but somehow hasn’t captured the public imagination. On the other hand, people are clearly fascinated by dinosaurs, frozen baby mammoths and stone-age hunters, Second World War and Arctic exploration ships linked to larger-than-life figures, like Amundsen.

The best museums also have an asset that is connected to a great story. Behind the dinosaurs and mammoths lies the poignant mystery of why they disappeared. Normandy’s D-Day museums are linked to the amazing stories of the men and women who fought there. The Bolzano ice man museum is centred on the mysterious questions of who he was, why he was hiking across the Alps and who murdered him. That’s why these museums also tend to have a Discovery Channel show about them too.

What might be a flagship draw for the Yukon? Our current attractions are superb, but what else could we have?

Well, given the interest in the Second World War, it would be great to get our hands on one of the bombers that crashed in a Yukon lake on its way from American factories to the Russian front.

Also, any exhibit on Yukon dinosaurs would be a big draw. We know from the dinosaur tracks around Ross River that there is potential. If Drumheller can have Albertosaurus, we need someone to find Yukonosaurus.

One of the biggest potential draws is the Yukon’s own ice man. Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi or Long-Ago-Person-Found was discovered in 1999 after perishing on the ice several hundred years ago. He was found with amazing artefacts, including an atlatl, an intricately woven hat and a gopher-skin robe. Remarkably, from what he had been eating we know where he had been travelling in his final days. Even more amazingly, DNA analysis has revealed more than a dozen Champagne and Aishihik First Nations’ members are related to him.

This would make a fantastic story and exhibit. It is hard to think of a more compelling way to tell the world about First Nation culture and heritage. There are important sensitivities to be respected, both in terms of respecting Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi’s dignity and the right to own and tell the story. The body itself has been cremated, but modern museums can do impressive things with replicas and good interpretive materials.

The Norwegians and the folks in Bolzano would probably suggest that those responsible have a major opportunity to share both important knowledge of First Nation culture and heritage as well as attract visitors and create jobs.

The Cold Recall exhibit on Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen opens at the MacBride on April 11 at 5:30 p.m.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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