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Naval museum pleads for help to save flag from historic Arctic rescue mission

Naval museum pleads for help to save flag from historic Arctic rescue mission
7 March 2023
The Royal Navy’s premier museum needs to raise £30k inside a fortnight to prevent an iconic piece of naval history being snapped up by a private collector.

170 years ago a party led by naval officer Captain Henry Kellett attempted to find the doomed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and the 129 men of HMS Terror and Erebus, lost in the late 1840s when they tried – and failed – to find a navigable route from the Atlantic to Pacific via Canada’s Northwest Passage.

Their disappearance prompted both widespread grief in Victorian Britain – and concerted efforts to find them, including the one led by Kellett in the 1850s.

He flew a flag from his sledge – popular among British polar explorers and akin to a unit insignia or ship’s crest – a standard which is now being sold.

Measuring 595mm by 885mm and bearing the inscription auxilium ab alto – ‘help from on high’ – the flag was deemed such an important piece of British history that the government imposed an ‘export bar’ last September to allow UK museums, galleries or institutions to find time to raise the £120,000 asking price.

With just a fortnight to go before the embargo expires the National Museum of the Royal Navy has stepped forward in a last-ditch attempt to save the flag – and put it on display in Portsmouth. 

Despite grants, donations and dipping into its own fund for purchasing new exhibits, it’s still £30k short – hence the plea for help.

The fundraising drive has the backing of ex-Python and TV travelogue presenter Michael Palin, who’s written a bestseller on the Erebus, and historian Dan Snow who says Kellett’s flag “is a part of our national story and it should be here for us all to learn from and be inspired by.”

ProfDominic Tweddle, Director General of The National Museum of the Royal Navy, said few such flags had survived and fewer still were on public display. 

“The Kellett sledge flag takes on a greater significance, and will complement the objects we will soon be receiving from the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, from Parks Canada,” he added. 

Kellett did not find Franklin’s expedition – or even traces of it – but he did see and map places no European had ever visited before. The wrecks of the two lost ships were only found in the past decade.

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