Sunday, April 15, 2012

Travelogue: Titanic Exhibit at Henry Ford Museum

Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
The Titanic has long held a prominent place in the human imagination and commemorations abound during this year’s 100th anniversary of its sinking.

Among them is Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition hosted by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Similar exhibitions are also appearing in Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Diego with upcoming shows scheduled in Columbia, SC, St. Petersburg, FL and Philadelphia.

The 10,000 square foot exhibition reflects the size and grandeur of the world’s largest and most luxurious ship of its time.  Room re-creations of a first class hallway and cabin as well as a full-scale replica of the Grand Staircase reveal the ship’s splendor while the passengers’ accommodations, menus, china, even the recovered tile floors of the bathrooms illustrate the attention given to social class distinctions in Edwardian England.

First Class Cabin -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
“The ship is like a palace,” says Hugh Woolner, first class passenger in one of many quotes highlighted on the walls of the exhibit.  “My cabin is ripping.  Hot and cold water, very comfy-looking bed—and lots of room.”

The exhibit captures the human tragedy of the event by featuring small fragments of people’s lives with many of the objects probably handled shortly before the ship met its fate on Monday, April 15 at 2:20 a.m.

Third Class Cabin -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
This includes chinaware (a cobalt blue border with interlocking gold trim for first class and plain, white with only the White Star Line insignia in the center for third class), sherry glasses (congratulating the Captain at a party), cut-glass butter dish (indicating second class rather than first class crystal), cooking pots tarnished from the sea one with food burned on it and the other with a hole burned through it.

Many personal items were found in leather suitcases including a brooch, star pendant, gold lapel pin, cuff link, gold filigree barrette, hair dye bottle, shoe brush, toothpaste jar, trousers and vest, shoes, postcards, letters, an arithmetic book, playing cards, silver mesh handbag, gold wristwatch, French francs, American greenbacks and coins, wire-rimmed glasses, Gillette razor, shaving brush, sock garters, mechanical pencil with eraser, pipe and tobacco pouch. 

Some objects were recovered from the ocean’s bottom:  bowler hat, mirror with faux ivory handle (plastic imitating luxury), perfectly stacked au gratin dishes (the wooden cabinet had rotted away), champagne bottles with some still corked with liquid inside.

Some artifacts come with stories.  First class passenger Adolphe Saalfeld, 47, a perfume maker from Manchester, England, lost 65 vials of perfume.  He was headed to America to market some new fragrances to department stores in New York and other major cities.  He survived but it would be decades before 62 of the vials were recovered from his Swiss-made leather suitcase—some with perfume and scents still in them. 

The exhibit does a good job of placing visitors in the mood and setting of Titanic through various techniques.  Its bright and colorful First Class area is accompanied by classical violin music until visitors move through to the crew’s quarters on E Deck (with bunk beds accommodating 50 men to a room) where they begin to feel the foreshadowing of the ship’s fate.  The space becomes dark with red safety lights as visitors pass through the mammoth watertight doors that separated Titanic’s 15 compartments.  The sound of pulsing engines gives way to the moans of the sea as the ship hits the iceberg and becomes engulfed in the ocean’s calm, icy waters. 

The doors were designed to close should any of the compartments fill with water thus giving the ship the reputation of being “practically unsinkable.”  The ship could have survived with two flooded compartments, but the iceberg cut six slits over 300 feet into the hull and filled five compartments, according to ship’s designer Thomas Andrews.

Young visitors instantly get the message.

“This is so creepy,” said one.  “You have to think about what happened to the ship.”

In the final section of the exhibit, visitors are treated to a simulation that explains how Titanic hit the iceberg, broke apart and sank to the bottom of the sea with debris strewn over an area of 15 square miles.  Another film illustrates how conservators decades later used the ROV to extract the artifacts. 

Many parts of the ship are on display including an angle iron (which visitors could touch), lifeboat davit cleat, ship’s whistle, telegraph and the stern’s docking bridge telephone stand.

A chunk of ice in the shape of an iceberg is also available for visitors to touch.

Passengers’ eyewitness descriptions of the ship hitting the iceberg and its aftermath make the event more real:

“CRASH!  Then a low rending crunching, ripping sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and her engines gently ceased.”  (Violet Jessop, stewardess)

“Just a dull thump.” (George A. Harder, First Class passenger)

“Through the ship’s portholes we saw ice rubbing against the ship’s sides.” (Lawrence Beesley, Second Class passenger)

Memorial Wall -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
At the end of the exhibit is a memorial wall with the names of individual passengers and crew on board Titanic’s maiden voyage.  This, too, elicits a more empathetic response to the tragedy as visitors check to see if the person whose passenger ticket they have been carrying since the onset of their tour survived or not. 

In first class, 201 passengers were saved and 123 lost.  In second class, 118 were saved and 166 lost.  In third class 183 were saved and 527 were lost.  Among the crew, 212 were saved and 698 were lost, including Captain Edward J. Smith.

Several recovered artifacts recall several ironic missteps that would later prove fatal:  the fractured compass bowl that set the ship on a new course of North 71 West (outside established traffic lanes) at 5:45 p.m. in an attempt to avoid ice by steering the ship further south. 

A barometer indicated perfect weather.

The forward masthead light sat in the crow’s nest to warn other passing ships of Titanic’s approach. 

A 60-pound lump of coal from the 6,000-ton load that was diverted from coal supplies of other ships due to a coal strike in England.  Titanic needed enough coal to feed its 157 furnaces that heated 29 boilers.  This single lump could move the ship 60 feet at full speed in 1.5 seconds.  Titanic was going at 21 knots, nearly top speed, when it hit the iceberg.  Many passengers originally scheduled for passage on other vessels were rebooked to cross the Atlantic Ocean on Titanic due to the coal strike.

Crow’s nest lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee did not see the iceberg until it was too late and they did not have access to the ship’s only pair of binoculars.  Testimony at the British inquiry following the disaster revealed that it was common practice for only the chief officer, first officer or second officer to have binoculars while on duty and not for lookouts who would otherwise be distracted.  The binoculars were recovered and ominously on display.

The original plan of the ship ordered 32 lifeboats, enough for 1,900 people.  However, only 20 lifeboats, capable of accommodating 1,178 people, were on the ship.  This was done in order to cut costs and clutter. 

Only 714 people survived out of the 2,228 passengers and crew on board while 1,514 perished from hypothermia in the 28 degree waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  Only two lifeboats were filled to capacity mostly due to the passengers’ reluctance to leave the ship because they believed it to be “practically unsinkable.”

Titanic’s resting place is located 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland.  It lay quietly on a sandy seabed until it was discovered on Sunday, September 1, 1985 by Dr. RobertBallard, a former United States Navy officer and a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.  

Ballard originally planned to keep the location a secret to prevent treasure hunters from claiming prizes from the wreck. He considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts.  Ballard is currently on a campaign to keep people from taking artifacts from the Titanic.  

However, RMS Titanic, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of PremierExhibitions, Inc. (Atlanta, GA), was granted Salvor-in-Possession rights to the Titanic wreck site by a United States federal court in 1994, which allows it to be the only company permitted to recover objects.  It has conducted seven research and recovery expeditions (1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2010) and recovered and conserved more than 5,500 artifacts.  

A dive to the wreck with remote operated vehicles (ROV) takes between 12 to 15 hours, including two-and-a-half hours to reach the ship and two-and-a-half hours to resurface. 

The bow as it looks today
Nearly all of the artifacts are tagged and stored in climate control environments.  That they have survived the passage of time as well as the trauma of settling below 12,500 feet of water at a pressure of 6,000 pounds per square inch is almost miraculous. 

Upon retrieval, each object is stabilized to prevent further degradation due to the sudden change in environment. 

The objects are being consumed by bacteria, abraded by sediments, and corroded by salt and acids.  “Rusticles” of bacteria and fungi cling to the ghost ship, which is also being consumed by iron-eating microbes that will collapse it onto itself in 40 to 90 years. 

The exhibit is dedicated to Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic who died at on May 31, 2009 at the age of 97.  She was a two-month-old baby when the ship went down and was saved in Lifeboat 10 with her mother and brother while her father was lost at sea.  Her brother, Bertram, died at age 82 on April 14, 1992, on the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Tickets are $10 extra with admission to the Henry Ford Museum and the exhibit runs until September 30.  Adult admission is $17, seniors 62 or older is $15 and youth 5-12 years old is $12.50.  For further information, see the museum website.


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