On April 15, 1912, the majestic ship Titanic slipped beneath the freezing waters of the north Atlantic Ocean. More than 705 passengers and 701 members of the crew lost their lives—of 2,228 souls aboard. It is these people—millionaires traveling in the finest luxury to laborers sleeping in the bowels of the ship, dreaming of a better life—that the Titanic Exhibit currently at the Center Of Science & Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio.
I’m in this lovely Midwestern city for the Romantic Times BookLovers Convention. Before the workshops and luncheons got into gear, my roommate and I took in the Titanic Exhibit. From the moment you step up to exchange your ticket for a Boarding Pass, issued by the White Star Line, you are immersed in the experience, in what the Titanic was and is.
My boarding pass gave me the identity of second-class passenger Mrs. Edward Nye (Lizzie), widowed, returning to the United States after a trip to Europe to recover from her grief at the recent death of her husband. She has a small cabin on F deck, one of the few second class cabins down that low on the ship. As we perused the exhibit, I found myself searching for hints of her existence, her presence on the ship.
As we stepped around the corner into the darkened exhibit area, a ship’s horn blasted from somewhere overhead. Wall displays and videos documented the recovery of items from the magnificent ship. We walked from case to case, looking at artifacts recovered from the debris field on the ocean floor. In the long string of debris, which stretched more than a half a mile between the stern and bow sections, they found eyeglasses with the lens intact, leather suitcases with the clothes still inside, relatively unscathed; china; crystal; champagne bottles with the champagne still inside; even a man’s bowler hat, lying alone in the sand near the ship, intact and wearable. The curators of the exhibit placed the artifacts in front of 4×4’ pictures of the items as they were found on the ocean floor. Gratin dishes stacked one in front of the other, sat angled in the sand as if the wooden crate were still in place.
Next came the documentation of the maiden voyage. There was such an air of adventure among the passengers, of hope that they were going to better lives in America. Whether their belongings came aboard ship in simple cases or elaborate chifforobes, every person on board was looking forward to the twenty plus days on board.
Moving deeper into the ship, we studied the first class cabin that was carefully recreated, right down to the ladies’ gloves lying on the small side table, waiting for their owner to take them as she left for dinner. The shiny baubles she might have worn with the pink silk gown hanging on the door were laid out with care in a nearby case. Docents in period costumes explained where the grand oak staircase led, and who they’d shared dinner with that evening.
The carefully arranged artifacts led us deeper into the ship, down a white and gold gilt hallway of first class, through second class, third class, the crew’s quarters, and into the boiler room, then up to the telegraph office where the ice warnings were received by the crew member and never delivered to the captain.
As we entered the next room, and eerie scraping sound could be heard as the big ship struck the submerged portion of the huge iceberg. The ship’s bell sounded, calling all to life boats, but Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV refused to leave her husband. They’d spent too many years together, she told him, to leave him now. Lifeboats were launched, but there weren’t enough for all the passengers and crew, and those that were used left the ship less than half full.
As we read the history, the heartbreaking stories of those who had no way to escape, we looked down and realized we were standing in a lifeboat, the image projected onto the floor under our feet. Finally, we emerged into daylight and rescue ships approached to lift the terrified, half-frozen passengers to safety. On the wall of the exhibit of this silent room was a list of all the passengers and crew. Divided into First, Second, and Third Class, and Crew—Survived and Did Not Survive. As we compared our Boarding Cards to the list on the wall, each of us felt a kinship with the passenger whose identity we’d borrowed.
What an amazing, moving experience. For an hour, the designers of this exhibit transported us from a cool April morning to a freezing April night on the open water of the Atlantic Ocean. If the exhibit comes to a museum near you, don’t miss it!