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Historic and Prehistoric—at Houston Museum of Natural Science

Written by , published August 24, 2012

On a recent visit to Houston, I made plans with my sister, Jean to go the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see Titanic, The Artifact Exhibition before it leaves (on view through Sep. 23), and also explore the new Hall of Paleontology.

Long before the 1997 Oscar-winning film, I have always been fascinated with the history of the shipwrecked ocean liner and the class system within it. A traveling exhibit in honor of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, Titanic, The Artifact Exhibition contains items uncovered from the ship including clothing, jewelry, luggage and leather goods, stationery, perfume bottles (one of the bottles still bears a faint scent) and china used in the first-, second-, and third-class dining rooms. I learned that china imprinted with the simple, smart design of the ship’s White Star Line logo was served in third-class to discourage theft from passengers. (I must admit if I had been a passenger, the opposite would’ve been true!) The items for the most part are remarkably well-preserved, thanks to a combination of the type of chemicals used to tan leather suitcases a century ago, plus the enormous water pressure from the ocean floor helped form a tight seal around the trunks and cabinets containing the contents.

Other class distinctions: differences in size, décor, and even bathroom fixtures in the classes of staterooms. Many first-class staterooms had private bathrooms, outfitted with marble toilets, whereas in third-class, some 710 passengers shared two full bathrooms and several water closets, although there were chamber pots in each room. Despite the disparate accommodations, the Titanic was considered a well-appointed ship even by third-class standards compared with similar vessels at the time.

A wall chart contrasts the costs of a first-class, second-class, and third-class ticket in 1912 and 2012 dollars. A standard first-class ticket cost today’s equivalent of $57,000; a third-class ticket, $900, still a pricey amount when one considers many third-class passengers were families immigrating to the U.S. that included at least several children and a relative or two.

Not surprisingly, most of the artifacts and displays are fragile, displayed in low light and cordoned off or encased in glass. However, a touch display of a simulated iceberg truly felt bone-chilling. According to a quote from an exhibit caption, "Striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one's body. The temperature was 28 degrees, four degrees below freezing," —Charles Lightoller, Titanic Second Officer.

As we entered the exhibit, each person was handed a boarding pass bearing the name and a brief bio of an actual passenger on the Titanic. At the end of the exhibit, a mural-size chart reveals whether your passenger perished or survived the shipwreck. Jean and I both received boarding passes from second-class passengers who happened to have survived.  My passenger, Miss Dagmar Jenny Ingeborg Bryhl, age 20 from Skara, Sweden, who boarded second-class, accompanied by her brother, Kurt, and her fiancé Ingvar Enander, survived. As I read what happened to her companions, Kurt, who was traveling as an interpreter for the couple and planned to immigrate to the U.S., sadly, did not.

We exited Titanic directly into the newly reborn and expanded Hall of Paleontology, which features more than 30 dinosaurs, along with large mammals. Displays of these fossilized creatures are not in the usual static poses, but in situational, active settings such as eating, and chasing (and being chased). The Hall of Paleontology’s curator, Robert Bakker was one of Steven Spielberg’s advisors on 1993’s Jurassic Park. Rather than seeming fierce and menacing as in the movie, I found the creatures’ poses more personable and even endearingly irreverent. The spare, modern presentation of these massive once-beings against a white backdrop, accented with strategic lighting, evoke the feeling that you’re in an art gallery and not a natural history museum.

Sea life is also shown here in a virtual aquarium, and there are even touchable specimens, including fossilized dinosaur skin. Other smaller creatures that caught my attention: the ammonite, with its textured shell and graceful tentacles, and the squid-shaped head of the boomerang-headed amphibian gave it a Dalí-esque appearance. Besides the creatures’ skeletal shapes, the shapes they left behind are also on view, in the form of coprolites, or fossilized excrement. They look just as you’d think they would—you can’t miss it!

When I lived in Houston, I paid many fond visits to the old Hall of Paleontology’s Life Through Time exhibit, with a T. rex replica sharing the centerpiece with the museum’s first dinosaur, Diplodocus hayi. This dazzling, new Hall of Paleontology is truly eons of light-years ahead, and even boasts a well-preserved, real-bone, T. rex now!

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