January 29, 2006

Chilling exhibit aboard the Queen Mary turns visitors into passengers

Posted by Kate McLaughlin
on Jan 27,2006
TITANIC MEMORIES - A photo of the Titanic’s grand staircase creates a backdrop for a statue recovered from the wreck and now on display at The Queen Mary. CNS Photo courtesy of Steve McCrank.
There may be no better place to view "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit" than where it is now - below decks, amid the passageways and holds of the stately Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. Over the past decade, more than 15 million people worldwide have seen versions of this exhibit, including a show in 2003 at Los Angeles' California Science Center, but the Queen Mary is a particularly inspired venue, a setting that turns visitors into passengers and, for a brief time, the Queen Mary into the Titanic.

Visitors to the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 4, are plunged below deck, where they wind along narrow passageways that are illumined by pools of ice-blue light and lined with photos, documents and relics that retell, in chilling detail, the story of the ill-fated luxury liner.

And make no mistake: The exhibit is literally chilling. The temperature cools noticeably as visitors re-trace the Titanic's tragic course - from its construction in a Belfast shipyard to its sinking in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, en route to New York. The chill is all part of the show, the cold air piped in to enhance the dramatic impact of the large, man-made iceberg that awaits visitors at the end of their tour.
ON EXHIBIT - Seal skin slippers and a hat are among the Titanic’s recovered items that are on display in Long Beach, Calif. CNS Photo courtesy of Steve McCrank.

The glistening slab of ice is there to be touched, so that visitors might know the intense pain of the passengers who were left to die in the icy cold waters. It also serves as a miniature reminder of the massive iceberg that doomed both passengers and ship.

But it's the passengers and crew, not the faux iceberg, that constitute the heart of this exhibit. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster.

"The Titanic was one of the first big transit tragedies, like the first plane crash or train wreck," says David Galusha, an artifact conservationist who has worked on Titanic items for years. "These were civilians, a cross-section of regular people in society going from point A to point B. We're just like them, so all their personal stories are fascinating to us, even now."

The exhibit tells their stories effectively, showing their faces in grainy photographs and film clips, posting their words on the walls and displaying their personal belongings and numerous other artifacts - more than 270 in all - recovered from the floor of the North Atlantic decades after the sinking.

Period music sets the tone as visitors move through the displays. Bright, light-hearted fiddle music fills the air in a re-created waterfront area, with wood plank floors and piles of suitcases stacked and ready for travel. Historic film footage captures the throngs of well-wishers and passengers waving and celebrating as the Titanic heads out to sea on its maiden voyage. Headlines from vintage newspapers proclaim the great confidence early 20th century society placed in passenger liners as luxurious, speedy and safe modes of public transit, declaring the ship "practically unsinkable."

In the exhibit's re-creation of the forward grand staircase area, visitors are serenaded with a stately Viennese waltz. The black-and-white floor tiles, oak-paneled walls and authentic cherub statuette provide a glimpse of the ship's opulence and architectural grandeur.

A plaque on the wall quotes passenger Lady Lucille Duff-Gordon: "Why, you would think you were at the Ritz."

She and her fellow first-class passengers certainly paid for such elegance. The average price for a first-class berth on the Titanic was $4,500 - almost $79,000 in today's dollars.

Whatever class they were traveling in, passengers aboard Titanic fared better than was typical on an ocean liner. Supplies on board included 75,000 pounds of meat, 6,000 pounds of fresh butter, 1,500 bottles of wine, 20,000 bottles of beer and 10,000 pounds of sugar.

But the Queen Mary's aft steering room offers no hint of the Titanic's opulence. The steering room sits at the end of a low-ceilinged, all-metal passageway that runs along the ship's angled hull. Here, amid coils, pipes, giant hydraulic cylinders and other heavy machinery, visitors learn a bit about the inner workings of the Titanic, such as its massive fuel consumption: 1 pound of coal for every foot traveled.

They also learn about the ship's crew.

Beneath the grainy photograph of a stern-looking Frederick Fleet, the lookout who was on iceberg watch that fateful night, a brief caption tells his sad story. An orphan who never knew his father, Fleet was abandoned by his mother and sent off to work at sea when he was just 12.

Beyond the steering room is the propeller box, the exhibit's turning point.

Inside the small, dark enclosure visitors can look over a rail into the illuminated water at one of the Queen Mary's huge propellers, similar in size to those on the Titanic.

There is no music here; only an occasional drip of water, echoing eerily. On the wall, Fleet's ominous words are lit by a single circle of cool, blue light: "Iceberg right ahead."

From this point the exhibit takes a somber turn.

The hallways become darker, the air colder. The lively music has been replaced by haunting, otherworldly sounds evocative of whale songs. Passenger quotes mounted on the walls reflect growing desperation, none more dramatically than Capt. John Smith's infamous advice: "Every man for himself."

True to maritime code, Smith went down with his ship. So, too, did all eight members of the ship's band. Gallantly refusing to leave their posts, they played "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship went down.

Many passengers, the exhibit reveals, behaved just as nobly. "We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen," Benjamin Guggenheim is quoted as saying. He did not survive.

Neither did Ida Strauss.

"I will not be parted from my husband," she said. "As we have lived so will we die. Together."

The quotes are poignant and powerful. So, too, are the many recovered artifacts that connect viewers and victims: a white steward's jacket, its owner's name still legible on the collar; a deeply crested Trilby hat, band and bow intact, sitting stiff and crisp next to combs, toothbrushes and playing cards; a pair of velvet-trimmed sealskin slippers that still retain the shape of their owner's feet.

These are the stark reminders of lost lives: luggage tags, currency (coins and bills), a perfume dealer's sample bag with vials and scents still intact, china, silverware, a full champagne bottle still corked, jugs and bottles encrusted with fragments of deep-sea creatures, a plate littered with the pits of olives eaten 93 years ago.

Working on such artifacts can be "pretty eerie at times," Galusha, the conservationist, says. "Sometimes when I'm in my lab late at night working on this stuff by myself, I get goose bumps.

The pieces are amazingly well-preserved for having been underwater for more than 90 years, notes Galusha, who specializes in the preservation of textiles and leathers.

"Believe it or not, the site, which is more than 2 miles down, is a pristine environment," he says. "There is no light or oxygen down that far and it's extremely cold. Corrosion doesn't occur until the items are retrieved and exposed to the air."

At that point, Galusha says, conservation begins immediately, including desalinization and immersion baths in deionized water. Several of the items on display at the Queen Mary exhibit have local significance. They once belonged to former area residents who found their fates intertwined with that of the Titanic.

One such item is a letter addressed to Mr. Howard Irwin at 1055 S. Hope St., Los Angeles. Irwin had booked passage on the ship, but never made it aboard. En route to the Titanic, he was shanghaied and forced into labor on a steamer bound for the East. He eventually escaped his captors and made his way back home, but his friend, Henry Sutehall, didn't fare so well.

Sutehall went to the Titanic to bid Irwin bon voyage, saw that his friend's baggage was loaded aboard and waited for him to arrive. When Irwin never showed, Sutehall boarded the ship in his place.

Sutehall didn't survive the tragedy, but some of his belongings - a few woodworking tools, a leather belt and some playing cards - did, and are now on display.

Los Angeles businessman Walter Clark, who founded the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, the Los Alamitos Sugar Factory and Citizens National Bank, was also a passenger on the ship. He did not survive, and his mother memorialized him by donating the money to build Long Beach's Walter Miller Clark Memorial Church, now the Lakewood Village Community Church.

Also on board was George Brereton, a notorious Los Angeles card shark whose gambler's luck held out, to his lasting discredit. He was rescued aboard lifeboat 15 and forever branded part of a cowardly lot: 50 of the 65 survivors in his lifeboat were men.

A room toward the end of the exhibit lists the names of all passengers and crew members, the rescued and lost. Among the surviving passengers was Jack Thayer, whose words, quoted earlier in the exhibit, provide an eloquent, if ironic, comment on the Titanic's tragic last night.

"There was no moon," Thayer said, "and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand out of the sky sparkling like diamonds. ... It was the kind of night that made one feel glad to be alive."

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