TITANIC: The Artifact Exhibition

The Titanic artifact exhibition is on display at the Grand Rapids Museum, and the family and I recently got a chance to go see it. In a word? Amazing. If you haven’t been, go. It really brings home the disaster.

My boarding pass
My boarding pass

The display starts with each person getting a boarding pass displaying the information of one of the passengers on board the Titanic. I was lucky enough to be Mrs. John Jacob Astor, traveling in first class with my husband and entourage. DH was a chairman of a perfume manufacturing company, also traveling in first class. The girls unfortunately drew boarding passes for third-class passengers, both Irish women. You can probably see where this is going.

Right after the ticket area is a telegraph wheel. This is one of those big round wheels labeled Full Speed, Half Speed, Dead Stop, etc. A rotating arrow marks the command that is to be conveyed to the crew. It was intact and functional.

The first several rooms of the display document the building of the great ship as well as the accommodations. I looked at the artifacts in this section and kept thinking of them as replicas. It was so hard to imagine they had actually been on board. This section contained

A replica of a third-class teacup.
A replica of a third-class teacup.

things like ceramic toothpaste canisters and still-filled cold cream jars and shaving brushes as well as dishes from all class levels on board. It also highlighted the stories of some of the passengers on board. After seeing mockups of both first- and third-class rooms, we were funneled around a corner, and the whole thing became even more poignant.

As we turned the corner, we saw transcripts of ice warnings sent out by other ships. One sent at 11 p.m. said it was stopped dead and surrounded by ice. A scant forty minutes later and going nearly full speed, the Titanic would hit an iceberg.

The lighting was dimmer, the room colder (probably because of a huge slab of ice on display that you could touch to bring home how cold the water was). It was here the disaster really hit me. In one case, I found another telegraph wheel. I could barely recognize it for the thing we saw at the beginning of our trip. All the glass had long ago smashed, and the entire thing was bent and skewed out of its circular shape.

Huge photos on the walls showed wreckage on the bottom of the ocean and in the glass cases in front of them sat very similar items recovered from the site. These very artifacts had withstood pressures of up to 6000 pounds per square inch and the ravages of time before they were recovered. Quotes from witness accounts lined the walls.

We turned yet another corner to find out what happened to all the passengers we had met

The Ship of Dreams
The Ship of Dreams

at the beginning of our journey. A huge list on the wall gave the names of all the survivors and the dead from each class. Using the name on our boarding passes, we searched out the fate of our passengers. Mrs. John Jacob Astor and the perfume manufacturer survived. Both of the Irish women died.

It is an incredible display. It brings closer the horror and magnitude of the disaster and makes the focus on events like the Boston Marathon bombing and Hurricane Sandy even more clear.

Go see it.

Weird but true:

Mrs. John Jacob Astor had her dog on board. It was named Kitty.

We had a picture taken in front of a green screen at the beginning of the tour. At the end we called up our picture, and we had been transported to the great staircase of Titanic. A ghostly captain hovered in the background. That wasn’t the only ghost, though. We could see the stairs right through my daughter. I know it was some combination of the green screen and the blue shirt she wore, but still, it was a bit eerie after she had been given a boarding pass for a woman who died.

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