Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition
Poignant items salvaged from the most famous shipwreck of all
Since her discovery in 1985, the wreck of RMS Titanic and her story has continued to captivate and intrigue, more so since the blockbuster movie of 1997.
At 12,600ft down there is no natural light and the pressure is close to 380 atmospheres. It was from this hostile environment that objects have been laboriously retrieved using a manned submersible called Nautile. RMS Titanic, Inc – the company with sole salvage rights – has recovered some 5,500 individual items from the wreck site, with 300 featured in the London Exhibition. Critics have described these actions as ‘grave robbing.’ Even a hundred years after her sinking, this is a subject to be handled sensitively.
On entering the exhibition a White Star Line ‘boarding pass’ is handed to each visitor, bearing the name of a real Titanic passenger from first, second or third class. The attendant remarks that we should “find out at the end if they lived or died.” Visitors hold up boarding passes and have their picture taken. Handled sensitively? Hmm, an alarm bell had started ringing.
Perhaps it was the ghost of the ship’s bell, which was last rung in alarm on April 14th 1912 and is the first exhibit on display. The retrieval of a bell is the goal of every shipwreck salvor but under the extraordinary circumstances, this one must be the ultimate prize. To see a piece of history made real like this stirs the emotions, particularly for a Titanic buff like myself.
The tour meanders through the ship’s construction in Belfast, her departure from Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown, before settling into passenger life during the voyage.
The artefacts presented along the way range from large pieces of wreckage, to medium sized fittings and fixtures, all the way down to personal effects. Where possible, images and personal stories have been included that put the Titanic into the context of her Edwardian era: many of those on board were either the super-wealthy, or headed to the New World in search of a fresh start.
One thing that comes across is the sheer violence of her sinking; a piece of thick hull plating has curved over backwards, like a wafer of butter from a block; it rests at a frightening angle. Rivets appear to have exploded. A ceramic sink has been smashed into fragments.
Strangely, other items appear to have survived a century underwater rather well. There are postcards from London and Paris with the handwriting still visible, along with a case still packed with (soggy) cigarettes – were these in the pocket of someone who went down with the ship? As you pass, each item in the exhibition raises the same questions. Was the clarinet played by a member of the Titanic’s band, all of whom perished? A five-pound note akin in size to a sheet of A5 paper was a considerable sum in 1912, who owned it?
Bottles, cutlery, kitchenware, and a thousand other items of a century ago can be found better preserved elsewhere, but that would miss the point. From such depths as those at the bottom of the Atlantic, every item on display represents a mini-triumph in itself. A dish recovered from a wreck on a dive would be a cherished item – let alone a complete and pristine set of two dozen, each bearing the White Star Line emblem! Incidentally, nowhere is the Titanic’s name to be found: it was deliberately left off company property to save money, and allowed moveable objects to be used across several ships of the line…
As the story unfolds, gimmicks are kept to a minimum: the animatronic Captain Smith has mercifully been left out. The closest the tour comes is an ‘iceberg’ which visitors are encouraged to touch, to ‘experience intense cold.’
Towards the end, a comparison of our boarding cards against the passenger list reconfirms that the Titanic is indeed a grave site. We manage to resist the ‘lumps of genuine Titanic coal’ on sale for £19 or the picture of us standing on the Titanic, as superimposed in the gift shop. In all fairness, this is nothing new – souvenir hunting began the day the Carpathia docked in New York and the Titanic’s lifeboats were reportedly picked clean.
But if you can ignore the exhibitor’s commercial excesses, this collection of Titanic memorabilia is a must-see. Still visible after all these years is solid evidence of the art that went into her, the considerable craftsmanship, the people who lived and the people who died. The sad feeling it leaves is one of huge waste.
Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition runs until May 1st 2011 at the O2 Bubble, London.
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