Titanic: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences hosts the world’s most waterlogged exhibit

CorrespondentSeptember 22, 2012 

  • More information What: “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 West Jones St., Raleigh When: Sept. 29-April 28 Cost: $14 adults; $11 seniors, students and military; $9 ages 3-12; $8 for museum members Info: 919-707-9800 or naturalsciences.org

— By now, the story is as familiar as it is tragic.

One hundred years ago – on April 15, 1912 – RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage.

Titanic carried 2,220 passengers and crew members when it sank. More than 1,500 died in the icy waters. The tragedy of Titanic has resonated through the years, immortalized in books, film, art and song.

“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” opening Saturday at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, tells the story in a different way – through objects since recovered from Titanic’s final resting place on the ocean floor.

The exhibition will display more than 200 artifacts from the wreck, as well as meticulously detailed recreations of the interior of the ship, including a replica of the Titanic’s bridge, a watertight door and a section of first-class hallway. Among the artifacts on display: improbably preserved clothing, valuable jewelry and china, and furniture and fixtures from steerage quarters to the fabled Grand Staircase.

A previous version of the Titanic exhibit set attendance records at the museum; more than 200,000 visitors saw it between August 2003 and April 2004, said museum special events coordinator Albert Ervin. “The last time around, we kept the exhibit for nine months. This time it will be seven months … We’re hoping to do as well or better than last time.”

Ervin said the museum plans special programming to connect the Titanic exhibition with existing museum services and exhibits. Admission will be discounted during the museum’s new extended hours, 5-9 p.m. Thursdays and the first Friday of the month, starting in October.

“We’re really excited about it,” Ervin said. “This a totally new version of the exhibit.”

Boarding passes

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors will be issued a Titanic “boarding pass” with the name, itinerary and biographical information of a passenger from the ship. In the final room, visitors consult a wall memorial to learn whether their passenger survived the sinking of Titanic.

“It’s a good way to bring people into the story,” said Alex Klingelhofer, curator and vice president of collections for RMS Titanic, Inc. “It helps them identify a little more closely to the people that were on the ship and the decisions they had to make when they were faced with the enormity of what was going to happen. So that it’s not just names on a board. They’re actually living people, and you can connect with them in some way.”

Klingelhofer’s company is not only the exhibitor of the Titanic artifact collection, it’s also the “salvor-in-possession” of the Titanic wreck site. That means the company has exclusive rights to the ship’s debris field, Klingelhofer said, and handles the artifacts from start to finish. Each item on display has been raised from the ocean floor and put through a rigorous conservation process.

To date, RMS Titanic Inc. has recovered more than 5,500 artifacts, which are kept in various collections and touring exhibitions around the world. RMS Titanic currently has eight exhibitions open, from San Diego to Detroit to Bangkok.

The Raleigh exhibition will also feature its own chunk of iceberg, which visitors are encouraged to touch.

“That’s what we call the iceberg gallery,” Klingelhofer said. “The context of that is we want you to imagine how cold it was in the water that night. This is a way of letting you actually feel that ice, and to know that the water was actually colder than that.”

One of the most iconic elements included in the Raleigh exhibit is the ship’s bell, Klingelhofer said. “Titanic had three different bells. This is the one that hung in the lookout cage. So when the lookout rang the bell for iceberg dead ahead, this is the one he rang.”

Everyday items

Klingelhofer – who earned her undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill – has been curating the Titanic artifact exhibitions for years and said the everyday items continually give her new insights into the tragedy.

“It might sound strange, but one of the items that I find really moving is a set of clothespins; just basic wooden clothespins,” she said. “To me, that tells a very powerful story of the passenger – a third-class passenger, no-doubt – who felt the need to bring those clothespins to the new world. So that you could keep your clothes clean and look good in society. So that you were accepted and respected.”

Museum coordinator Ervin said he expects the artifacts will have an emotional impact on visitors.

“People will see these things that actually belonged to the passengers – shoes, clothes, hats, spectacles. It brings the tragedy to a very human level.”

Spend enough time with these random artifacts from a century-old tragedy, Klingelhofer said, and you get a new perspective of the story of Titanic. “With any object, I can sit and try to think why it was there. What was its purpose for that person? It tells a story of the early 20th century and all the people and migration and movement. From our perspective, we use the exhibits to retell the story of Titanic so that those people will never be forgotten.”

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