Memories and echoes of Titanic flood this writer’s mind.
Listening to the strains of a waltz while looking at fragments of fine china may not seem chilling or sad, but when a guest to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition views the more than 250 artifacts conserved from the ship’s debris field is an almost overwhelming look into a 100-year-old story. The echoes of the past are tangibly felt. I think they are seemingly more tangible as we are fast approaching the 100th anniversary of the sinking (April 15).
Initially I was going to write this as a news story, but after walking through the exhibition on the press preview morning, I have to write it from my experiences. Outside the main exhibit, there are pieces of clothing that relate to Kansas City from the Edwardian time period. Lisa Shockley, a curatorial specialist with the Kansas City Museum and Union Station, aided in creating the Kansas City ties to the Edwardian influences that spun around the metropolitan area in 1912. As guests enter the display area, they will see 1912-1915 daywear and evening costumes that clearly would have been part of the first- and second-class wardrobes aboard the Titanic. Waltus Watkins’ granddaughter wore one of the dresses when she served as a bridesmaid. Other selections include children’s wear.
When a similar exhibition was at Union Station a decade ago, visitors received a passenger’s name on a replica boarding pass. Just as before, they will learn the fate of that passenger in the memorial room. “It gives you a relationship, a connection, to a person on this ship,” Shockley says. “There will be an excitement that will build as we near the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking. The five-day voyage and sinking will be commemorated. We plan on bringing in James Cameron’s documentary Ghosts of the Abyss about the efforts to explore the wreckage and encourage preservation of the history.”
The trip is chronological. Visitors read panels explaining how the Titanic went from a dinner party dream in 1907 to a design by 1908 in the hands of a young Thomas Andrews Jr. and the team at Harland & Wolff. The figures of construction are incredible, but in today’s terms, I was more amazed at the values of a first class cabin. It costs $2,500 in 1912 that translates to $57,000 today. The two luxury suites were $4,500 and that would be $103,000 today. There are replicas of that first class cabin and in sharp contrast, the room with four bunks that was for third-class passengers. There is even a replica of one of the boiler rooms. Entering this thumping, red and almost angry room was frightening. Talk about the echoes from the past as I could imagine the backbreaking labor that was required to keep this massive ship afloat.
Then there is a chance to touch an ice wall that with only a few minutes causes pain. The imagination runs to the incredible sadness that within 40 minutes, hypothermia set in and most people succumbed to the freezing water. The ice wall is something to behold. I know the exhibition before had the wall, but it is still awe-inspiring that you can experience a fraction of that moment. In the same room as the ice wall are exhibition cases with items like a pair of pince-nez spectacles and one boot. While the items seems disparate to the exhibit, Captain Lowell Lytle, who has been to the Titanic wreckage site, and has played Captain Edward Smith, the doomed captain of the Titanic all over the world, reminded me that they belonged to an individual. “It is that person who deserves to be remembered.” In this area are a broken clarinet and the sheet music for a song almost ironically titled Pleasant Memories.
One of my favorite stories, if I use the word favorite in describing the sinking of this ship, is of the ship’s orchestra. They weren’t really part of the crew, but none of Titanic’s musicians survived. There is even a story that they played as long as they could, even as the lifeboats were being lowered into the frigid Atlantic. Orchestra leader Wallace Hartley may have conducted Nearer My God to Thee, although this knowledge is lost. It makes a lovely story that Hartley wanted the song performed at his own funeral.
When I talked to Lytle, who was in town for the exhibition opening, I asked him about his visit to the wreckage. “I was excited, depressed, elated and lonely. It is two and a half miles below and there is something lonely in that experience. I was the 109th person to go down to the site. In portraying Captain Smith, I read the biographies on him, but I knew I could bring even more if I saw the Titanic. It was an adventure of a lifetime.”
The tiny Russian submarine took Lytle over the crow’s nest and the captain’s cabin where he could see the bathtub. The emergency telegraph Smith used to signal the emergency was pulled up during Lytle’s descent. There’s also a window from an officer’s quarters that was recovered too. “I have assumed this role for years, but being there made this mean even more. As I take on Smith’s identity, visitors take on passengers’ identities. In the Memorial Room, I have watched people burst into tears because their passenger lived or died. The different emotions are substantial.”
Lytle says there is little or no ocean current and the debris field is incredible. One room in the exhibition is on conservation and preservation of the wreck. “The ship itself is a memorial, but with the organisms consuming the wreckage, decisions may have to be made about saving the stories. More than 1,500 souls perished, but their stories need to be told.”
The Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition tickets are on sale now. Learn even more at titanic.unionstation.org.