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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the August 11, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Visceral and Visual Titanic
You may have seen the movie. You may have seen the show. But now comes the blockbuster exhibit based on what is arguably the most famous, and reputedly most "unsinkable" ship of all time, the Titanic.
The Franklin Institute has launched its long-awaited "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit," a traveling exhibition that has been seen by 14 million people in science museums in Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris and London.
Featuring literally hundreds of the recovered artifacts from the disaster that caused the new ship to go down in a collision with an iceberg on April 14, 1912, killing 1,522 passengers, the exhibition fills two floors at the Institute (through January 2, 2005).
Among those who worked feverishly to install this massive exhibit, the largest the Franklin Institute has ever hosted, is Steven Snyder, vice president of exhibit and program development for the famous science museum at 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.
"This is truly a massive exhibit," says Snyder, whose oversaw the design and flow of the entire exhibit space and also the arranging of special programs that will accompany it.
"For visitors, it’s a linear experience that begins with the representations of the building of the ship, takes you down an actual recreation of the Titanic’s famous First Class stairway, and generally lets you experience what life on the ship was like," says Snyder.
Exhibit designer Mark Lach, who was on hand for the press opening of the Titanic exhibit, suggested that his greatest goal was to let the story tell itself without too much forced intervention. "This is the real Titanic, and it’s very powerful stuff," says Lach, a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida ,who linked up with RMS Titanic Inc., the company that has sole salvage rights to the ship, back in the year 2000. "I wanted the visitor to gradually peel back the layers and get to the human side of the story through the artifacts," he says. "There was no need for anything else."
Visitors can experience recreated first and third class cabins, the feel of an iceberg, the shock of the chilly waters into which the Titanic’s stunned passengers found themselves, and the artifacts recovered from the site, including the Davit arm and base – the lifeboat-launching crane that lowered the lifeboats into the icy waters 453 miles southeast of the Newfoundland coastline.
Expect to gasp. Expect it to happen when you enter the inky-dark entry area of the sprawling exhibit. Be prepared to be stunned as you survey the magnificent Grand Stairway under the domed ceiling that first class Titanic passengers used during the voyage. It’s every bit as elegant and drop-dead gorgeous as the real thing must have been. The most unexpected aspect of the Titanic exhibit at the Franklin Institute is its emotional wallop. It starts at the entry where just a few solitary objects demand attention – a pair of spectacles, a beaded purse, a comb.
You’ll be reminded, as one of the wall legends suggests, that this is a story told "poignantly and passionately" through objects. The people behind the objects appear throughout the exhibition space in brief profiles, mini-portraits of socialites and immigrants, the powerful and the unknown. If the Titanic was a floating symbol of status for some first class passengers, we learn, it was simply a means of transportation for 710 immigrants seeking passage from Southampton, England, to America.
The class structure becomes apparent through obvious elements: the first class menu of April 14, 1912, promises filet of beef, saute of chicken, lamb and duck. Steerage passengers got roast pork – period. The first class cabin replicated in the exhibition is lavish; the third class cabin is absolutely Spartan.
The overwhelming feeling, as one wanders the "ship," or more correctly this remarkable evocation of the Titanic, is what an amazing experience it must have been to journey on it, however briefly. One of the most absolutely chilling elements, both literally and figuratively, is the replication of the iceberg that loomed like a dark nightmare on a clear and bitterly cold night. The ship reportedly "shivered" a bit before the sound of her engines ceased – and the horror descended. Visitors are invited to place their hands on the iceberg installed in the exhibit space, and to keep them there, to get a sense of how painful flesh meeting ice can be. Even 60 seconds feels like an eternity, yet the ocean waters into which passengers descended was even colder, at 28 degrees.
The final drama comes when visitors look back at the "boarding passes" they have been handed upon entering the exhibit area. Each contains a name. Some of those names are listed on a wall in one of the final areas of the exhibit under "Survivors." Some fall into the other category: "Casualties." Holding those simple passes offers all of us a powerful taste of the vagaries of destiny. That sense of life and death’s caprices lingers long after the last artifact has been seen.
The research and recovery missions that at last brought Titanic artifacts to the surface have been going on since 1987 by joint teams from United States, France, and Russia. The most recent team exploration was in 2000.
So vast is the collection, and so complex the elements of its construction, that it took 16 tractor trailers just to haul its component parts to the Franklin Institute.
"We’ve had to connect three spaces with a newly-constructed hallway," says Snyder of the behind-the-scenes work of the exhibition. "The cases themselves have been painstakingly designed not just for security, but also to preserve the artifacts, which are quite fragile."
Part of the exhibition is also about the science associated with the Titanic and its fate, Snyder emphasizes, including an analysis of the bulkheads that caused the boat to sink. There is something in this titanic exhibit for everyone, and no visitor – whether a "Survivor" or a "Casualty" – is likely to soon forget it.
– Sally Friedman
Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibit continues through January 2, 2005 at the Franklin Institute, 22 North 22nd Street, Philadelphia. Admission is $22.75; $20 for seniors and members of the military; $16 for children 4-11; and $5 additional for an audio tour. Tickets also include admission to all Franklin Institute exhibits and live shows. Titanic-only admissions from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays are $14 for seniors, $10 for children 4-11. Advance ticketing is available by calling 866- 312-3931 or visiting www.fi.edu/tfi/info/current/titanic/. For information, phone 215- 448-1200.
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