Iceberg – right ahead: the Titanic exhibit

I posted a few days back that I won a Dragon: tickets, that is, to see the Golden Dragon Acrobats from China at the Mohegan Sun Arena.  And so off we – my sister and The Kid and a friend of The Kid and I – went on Sunday to Uncasville – again – to see what we would see.  First, though, we figured we’d kill two adjacent birds with one car ride and go to see the Titanic exhibit at Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard. 

Titanic … Yes, I saw the movie.  I was working at the Mini Cine when it came out, and we did pretty darn well with it in the second run.  I liked it; Billy Zane may have played an unmitigated bastard (I think that was the quote), but he was lovely, and I enjoyed Kate Winslet.  (Leonardo DiCaprio kind of had the same effect on me as and poodles did in grade school – every girl just loved them, and so I looked elsewhere.  Never have been one to follow the trend.) (Where -? Oh.)  It got its points across; loved Gaelic Storm; I admit to tears;  and I had a minor panic attack as the ship sank and someone got stuck in – was it a porthole?  Because there’s a family story about how Uncle Joe was on a ship that was sunk, and a friend of his became stuck trying to get out through a porthole … and died. 

I was fascinated before James Cameron, and I’ve remained fascinated.  It’s a fascinating story: the perfect convergence of hubris and bad luck to create tragedy.  And in the midst of the tragedy glimpses of stupidity, heroism, terrible cowardice, and basic humanity in between: warnings that were not heeded (and in fact the speed was not slackened, at all), and people giving up seats in lifeboats for others, and people taking seats he – that is, they (*cough*Ismay*cough*) should not have, and lifeboats being launched half empty, and going down with the ship and “Nearer My God to Thee”.  So I was looking forward to seeing actual artifacts brought up from the ship.

The exhibit was well done, as far as it went.  On having your ticket scanned (your $20 ticket – a bit much, considering, but I suppose it costs a lot to transport the exhibit all over the country?  I choose to believe that some part of it goes to the conservation effort) you’re handed a “boarding pass”, with details about an actual passenger of the ship.  You follow the journey through a maze of partitions, spotted with display cases and hung with images and quotes, from the launch of the ship through the recovery of artifacts.  At the end of the journey through the voyage and exhibit you look for your name on the lists of the rescued and the dead, and see if you made it.  It’s eerie, and effective at helping to bring it to life. 

The artifacts were in hermetically sealed glass cases with detailed cards, and sometimes when they knew whose possessions had been recovered there was also a card about the owner.  Along the walls were placards, in the beginning recreating images of the ship early on, and photos and passenger biographies throughout along with factoids and quotations, famous (“I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that”; “Iceberg! Right ahead!”) and not.  It was the bios which were most moving, of course; for me, particularly the musicians. 

There were, opposite each other, reconstructions of first and third class cabins.  The third class cabin for four – with its pair of bunk beds, table between, plain jacket spread out on one bed  was the same size as what they showed as first class: one person’s room with dressing table, sitting area, and much nicer bed and appointments (and strewn with jewelry, a fur, a book).  Apparently a first class ticket could cost $4500; third cost $36.25 if you were willing to share.  (Second class started at $66.)  Each display had a case in front with possessions of someone from that sort of chamber.  Over cases filled with segregated dining room and serving ware from each of the classes hung an enlarged reproduction of the menu for each group. 

There was a bit of everything, from glass syringes (unexplained) to fan blades; from third class bathroom tiles to a china Dutch boy, all but intact; from a leather bag, startlingly ordinary looking in spots for having been on the ocean bed for decades, to vials of a perfumer’s art, belonging to Adolphe Saafeld and possible, by sniffing next to perforations in the case, to experience.  (Apparently someone on eBay is claiming to have recreated the scent.)  (The perfumer survived; he got into Lifeboat Number 3.)
There was a scale model (I assume – it was, oddly, not labeled (except for “DO NOT TOUCH”)) of the middle section of the ship as it lies; there was a porthole; there was a huge piece of ice (or a functional facsimile thereof) to both call to mind the fatal iceberg and to give the visitor an idea of how cold the water was; put your hand on it, and see how long you can keep it there (about ten seconds), and realize that the water Titanic sank into was colder than that.  (Pedantic question – how, and not be frozen?  Is it that the basic temperature of the water was colder than the surface temperature of ice – or wait.  Salt water.  Never mind.)  Throughout there were sound effects – sounds like whalesong in one section, and towards the end the sort of music that might be played by a small doomed band of musicians.

One of the most fascinating display cases contained serried rows of au gratin dishes; the placard noted that they had been stored in a wooden cabinet in the kitchen, and when the wood rotted away underwater the dishes were left neatly arrayed.  

I see from articles online about the exhibit that there are often actors on hand, including, I believe, in Connecticut.  There was one woman in clothing that looked more appropriate to Old Sturbridge Village than 1912 Titanic (mobcap).  I have no idea what  role she was playing…  Ah – I see on the Register’s website that there was an actor portraying Captain Smith when the exhibition opened.  There were monitors in several areas, one showing animation of the voyage and sinking, one showing footage of the recovery efforts, and one, I believe, showing the movie. 

In the end, I found that I – Emily, Mrs. Frank John Goldsmith – survived, with my nine-year-old son, Frank Jr.  “My husband” and the two friends “we” were traveling with – Frank, Thomas Theobald, and Alfred Rush – did not make it… what a strange feeling.  The Kid also survived, and turned out to be the mother of Millvina Dean, the last living survivor of the disaster.  My sister and The Kid’s Friend, unfortunately, were not survivors. 

One thing that struck me was how often pregnancy and early mortality came into people’s stories.  Someone lost a baby, and that prompted the decision for her and her husband to come to America to start over.  My passenger lost a child to diphtheria.  There were a great many pregnant women aboard the ship … They sailed because they were going to have children, or had lost children, or wanted something better for their children …

I was moved, sobered, by the experience – especially when I realized that half “my” party had died – but it didn’t hit me as hard as it might have.  It was sterile, with items that were once held by people who died in – or were pulled from – the icy water reduced to museum exhibits.  The latter are usually things that were in active use hundreds of years ago; these “artifacts” belonged to and were used by their people 98 years ago. 

My sister and The Kid had gone to see the exhibition a couple of years ago, and noticed that this time there didn’t seem to be as … much as there had been then.  I had thought it was rather slight, but just thought I was being jaded.  Then The Kid remembered a necklace that said “Amy” (how very modern Bling!), and my sister remembered one section that other time (and not this one) where it was as though you were entering the ship’s boiler room, tight and loud and a bit frightening.  And looking about online I see what’s happened.  In addition to Ledyard, there are Titanic exhibits in not one, not two – but four other places: right now, in Melbourne, Australia; Harrisburg, PA; Columbus, OH; and Las Vegas.  One of them got the boiler room; one of them also got the cherub famous for having been on the staircase under The Clock.  One of them – Vegas, I believe – got the actual section of ship’s hull with portholes. 
I had a feeling there should be more jewelry
Apparently there is also such a thing as “a stunning recreation of the Titanic’s legendary Grand Stairway”.  Reeaally.  And what a lovely model of the intact and proudly sailing ship.

Now, of course the small personal items – gloves, and satchels, and hairbrushes – were moving.  But … well, good grief, this is what we missed?

 Gosh, must've missed this

But wait – there’s more: “You’ll learn about shipboard life and the difference between 1st and 3rd class; explore the contents of an elegant steamer trunk; and even sniff perfumes of the era. We were able to slip on a replica life jacket and lounge in a replica deck chair to get the feel of life on board the majestic ship.”  Reeeeeaaaallly.  Difference between 1st and 3rd, yup; perfumes, check.  Annnnd … that’s it for there. 

I would think, I really would, that there would be a little more equity among the exhibitions.  From what I’ve seen it isn’t as if we paid $20 and other venues with more artifacts charged more; it seems pretty consistent.  What we were offered for our fairly large ticket price seemed meager at the time; research might not have been a great idea.

So … I’m a little ticked off.  It was moving; it was interesting, and as I said, what there was was well done … but it wasn’t nearly enough for a $20 ticket price.  The exhibit, for me, just went from “Moving look into the last voyage of 1800 people and one fabulous ship” to “excellent way to rake in quite a bit of money by ferrying bits and pieces of a whole to various spots around the world”. 

I hate it when cynicism is borne out.

Next: The Golden Dragons.

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1 Response to Iceberg – right ahead: the Titanic exhibit

  1. stewartry says:

    Had to leave this spam comment – even though I’m pretty sure the leather bag they brought up from Titanic was neither Prada nor Gucci….

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