By now, everyone knows the story of the Titanic. It has been the subject of countless novels, films, documentaries and books, and has captured the public imagination ever since it sank on April 15, 1912, claiming more than 1,500 lives.
It’s no surprise that a new exhibition would be staged at The O2 in London, but Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition, is a little different. Running from November 5 2010 until May 1 2011, it features over 300 items from the ship on display, including china dinner services, the ship’s wheel, porthole frames, and objects belonging to the passengers themselves. The exhibition also features recreations of parts of the ship, including first class cabins, the boiler room and the hold. I went along on Friday 12 November 2010 to try to better understand one of the most famous maritime disasters.
Upon entry, you’re handed a boarding pass giving details of a passenger, including their age, the reason for their trip, and which class they were in. At the end of the exhibition, a “memorial wall” allows you to discover if ‘your’ passenger survived, or was lost. Naturally the survivors’ list is somewhat shorter, and the plethora of names of lost souls hammers home the scale of the tragedy.
My own passenger, Annie Clemmer Funk, was a 38-year-old from Bally, Pennsylvania. She was travelling in second class to be at the bedside of her sick mother, after working in India as a missionary. Sadly, Annie didn’t survive. She gave up her seat in the lifeboat to a mother whose children had already been seated. When faced with such tales of selflessness, you do wonder how you would behave in the same situation. Could you give up your seat to allow a mother to stay with her children, knowing that doing so would seal your fate?
The exhibition is staged chronologically, and begins with the initial design of Titanic in 1907. Visitors move through the exhibition to see recreations of the ship’s interior, and display cases of artefacts retrieved from the ocean floor. It’s rather poignant, as well as a little eerie, to look at these handkerchiefs, stockings and notebooks, knowing their owners are never going to use them again. One passenger was a perfumier and some of his perfume samples survived – you can even smell the potent aromas. The galleries grow colder and darker until you reach the iceberg wall, which gives you some idea of how cold the sea was on the night of the disaster. Most casualties died of hypothermia, as opposed to drowning.
Naturally, the exhibition tells the story of the people on board as well as the facts regarding its doomed voyage. You hear about pursers who hurriedly tried to save the contents of the ship’s safety deposit boxes, with the intention of returning the valuables to their owners. There are the five mail clerks who desperately tried to save the hundreds of bags of mail on board. It’s genuinely humbling to hear about the lengths these people went to, continuing to do their jobs in the middle of a disaster. I doubt workers today would display such dogged devotion, though all stories pale into insignificance alongside the band who continued to play as the ship went down.
The exhibition also tells the stories of those passengers who weren’t even supposed to be on board. Some passengers booked tickets at the last moment when their plans changed, while others were transferred to the Titanic when the coal strike of 1912 prevented the departure of their own steamers. Few of these survived. Is this just simply bad luck, or does it raise more metaphysical considerations of fate?
Essentially the exhibition is a story of a great tragedy caused by human folly, but one coloured with great courage and sacrifice. As tragedies such as this, or the Great War, disappear into the mists of time it is easy to forget the people who suffered, or were lost. However I think it is important for us to remember, both to keep us in touch with humanity and those who have gone before us, but also so that we do not make the same mistakes again. Sadly history has shown that mankind and his warfare are not to be easily parted, but in the case of the Titanic, at least important lessons were learned. For that, at least, we can be grateful.