A century ago in April, the British passenger ship RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage en route to New York, killing more than 1,500 passengers. While the wreck of the Titanic remains on the seabed even today, in 1987crews began to remove artifacts from the debris field, fueling a number of exhibitions at museums worldwide.
In honor of the shipwreck’s 100th anniversary, the Museum of Natural Science in Houston (713/639-4629; www.hmns.org) welcomes Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition through mid-September. The more than 200 pieces on display include jewelry, china bearing the ship’s White Star Line logo, perfume bottles, currency, and interestingly, many personal effects made of leather. After the show closes in Houston, it will travel to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Senior Editor Lori Moffatt spoke about Titanic with Theresa Nelson, a member of the education team entrusted with interpreting the exhibition. “All of the 200-plus items on display were recovered between 1987 and 2004,” explains Nelson. “The exhibition has a good mix of personal effects. They make you realize that these items belonged to people like you and me.
“There are some incredible pieces of jewelry on display. One of my favorites is a gorgeous, three-diamond ring. We don’t know who owned it, but it might have belonged to a first-class passenger.
“When you go through the exhibit, you’ll see items that clearly show noticeable wear. Our conservation team preserves these items, but we don’t restore the items. As the ship broke in half and sank, it traveled 2.5 miles to its final resting place, and many items were ripped from the ship. As you can imagine, in many cases, the items are very worn. But some of the best-preserved pieces, such as currency and jewelry, were found in leather suitcases, trunks, or wallets. Why is this? Well, in the early 1900s, the process used to tan leather included chemicals that repelled microorganisms at the bottom of the sea. And with the pressure of the water at the bottom of the sea, these suitcases and such were sealed shut. When we bring up a leather suitcase or wallet, it’s like a time capsule.
“Our mission is to preserve the legacy of not only the Titanic, but also of the passengers, crewmembers, and all who sailed with the ship. We worked extensively with historians to develop the content of the exhibit, and with historical engineers to piece together the artifacts.
“When you enter the exhibit, you receive a boarding pass. On the back of the pass is the name of an actual passenger, along with an age, class of service, and what cabin they were assigned to, if we know that information. So you assume the identity of the passenger for the duration of the exhibit. We even include a bit of information about who you were traveling with, and why.
“You’ll visit the Construction Gallery, set in Belfast, Ireland, and learn about the design and construction of the ship. You then board the Titanic Passenger Gallery, a re-creation of First and Second Class cabins. You’ll see some of the personal effects recovered, including jewelry and china service. Then you’ll start reading some of the iceberg warnings that the crew began to receive.
“The you’re off to the Iceberg Gallery, where you can feel how cold the water was and read testimonials of some of the survivors.
“Next, you’ll walk through the Seabed Gallery, which describes the recovery and conservation efforts undertaken since 1987. Finally, you take your boarding pass to the Memorial Gallery, where we have the ship’s manifesto. Here, you’ll learn if you are a survivor or if you perished, and you can learn the fate of some of your fellow passengers.”