For the past century, the basic facts of Titanic's demise have remained as coldly undeniable as the icy ocean waters that became the ship's final resting place: The "unsinkable" ship sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland, eventually coming to rest 12,500 feet below the ocean's surface.
Titanic has become famous as the world's first global news story and, more recently, one of the world's most famous archaeological sites.
That status was fully cemented in 1987 when the first of its mother lode of artifacts was recovered. Each subsequent expedition has combed more of the 15-square-mile debris field to retrieve a new trove of objects, each one adding a bit more tantalizing and tragic detail of the ship's last voyage.
Opening Saturday at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" aims to convey, through more than 200 objects, some of the stories of not only the ship, but its crew and passengers, on that fateful night. The exhibit, which helps mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster, is spread over 14,000 square feet of museum space, and carries an estimated cost of $1 million. It's organized by R.M.S. Titanic Inc., part of Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc.
"As a science and history museum, we strive to balance science with history," says Van Romans, president of the museum. "The beauty of the Titanic exhibition is that it not only explores the science and engineering of how that extraordinary ship was put together, but it also conveys the history surrounding the ship at that time -- so it becomes this perfect coming together, in one place, of science and history."
Boarding the ship
For the Fort Worth show, museum patrons will take in a range of items, from postcards and other personal documents to clothing, glass perfume vials, a ship's porthole and, most distinctive of all, a complete set of whistles, which once signaled the great ship entering or leaving a port.
But more than just a Titanicopia of objects, the exhibition looks to re-create what part of the passenger experience was like.
And that means getting to know the ship's origins. The exhibition offers old film footage of the ship under construction in Belfast, by the prestigious firm Harland and Wolff.
After this construction primer, the Titanic exhibition experience truly begins as each visitor receives a boarding pass with the name of a real passenger, indicating whether they are a first-, second- or third-class traveler.
Then, the patron steps aboard the ship and almost immediately into a meticulous re-creation of a first-class corridor, leading to a reimagining of a first-class state room, stocked with artifacts reflecting life on board.
From there, the tour continues down a third-class hallway into a rendition of a third-class cabin whose four bunk beds underscore its spartan conditions.
The tour continues through an artifact-filled gallery depicting the ship's steamy boiler room and vital watertight doors -- leading to one of the show's most dramatic segments.
"You turn a corner and there it is: a silhouette of an iceberg," says Mark Lach, the show's creative director. "And as you move towards it, you feel its cold, and you soon realize you can put your hand on it so that you finally get that sense of what it must have been like to be in that icy Atlantic Ocean."
That encounter with an iceberg's lethal chill prepares a visitor for the exhibition's most poignant part: its memorial gallery, with a list of the ship's passengers and crew, divided into those who survived and those who perished, with the latter far outnumbering the former. Visitors are then asked to find the name on the boarding pass they were given to see if they survived.
"That's quite an emotional moment," says Alexandra Klingelhofer, vice president of collections for Premier Exhibitions. "It is also the underlying experience of the exhibition, to help you understand what a meaningful and tragic story Titanic is."
Learning about passengers
"The objects in an exhibition like this," says Klingelhofer, "aim to preserve the legacy of Titanic the ship, but also to reflect on some of the individual passenger and crew stories."
Only two of Titanic's megaphones, the ones used by the ship's crew to direct the frenzied passengers into the dwindling number of lifeboats, have been recovered, and this exhibit has one of them.
"This megaphone immediately takes you right to the heart of Titanic's story," says Klingelhofer.
Some of the bulkiest pieces on display come from the ship's famous watertight-doors area. They include a boiler-room wrench and a one-of-a-kind shaft that "would have helped bring down one of those massive watertight doors to seal off the different compartments, containing the rushing ocean water," says Lach.
Another way of distinguishing class and status on Titanic is through the recovered ceramic china. Third class ate off white stoneware carrying the White Star logo. Second class enjoyed finer, Delft blue-on-white china. And, finally, first-class dinnerware is a striking cobalt blue, bearing a leaf pattern, accented in gold.
The stunning recovery of a set of vials allowed Titanic specialists to assemble a biography of a passenger named Adolphe Saalfeld, a chemist of German extraction living in Manchester, England. His leather satchel held 65 glass vials, each one containing individual oil that would produce perfume.
From this discovery, it became clear that Saalfeld was on his way to New York to sell his personalized floral scents to department stores.
"Incredibly, not only did so many of the vials survive the sinking," says Klingelhofer, "but all these years later, many of the vials still emit faint aromas of lavender, rose or carnation."
Sometimes a handful of recovered documents reveal an entire passenger biography. Papers from the suitcase of George Rosenshine show he was traveling with a woman -- real name, Gertrude Maybelle Thorne -- whom Rosenshine didn't want to identify. The documents, including travel itineraries, reveal that the pair had entered Titanic under the assumed names of Mr. and Mrs. George Thorne.
Edgar Samuel Andrew's story is recounted, thanks to several postcards from his tightly packed suitcase. Traveling from England, where he was a student, to New York, Andrew's bags were full of London postcards -- purchased by the young student to show off where he had been while studying.
"He was so young, so educated and looking for a new life -- and he wouldn't survive," says Klingelhofer.
Specially inserted into this exhibition is the single Texas-centric item recovered from the wreckage: a postcard clearly showing the Dallas County Courthouse.
"That card was sent from Dallas to Howard Irwin and Henry Sutehall Jr., who were traveling the world together," says Klingelhofer.
The presence of so many seemingly fragile paper objects, from postcards to stacks of paper currency, raises the question: How could they have survived the ravages of 100 years on the bottom of the ocean?
The answer? Leather. All the paper and clothing recovered had been packed very tightly into leather satchels and suitcases. Leather acted as a natural preservative thanks to its tanning chemicals, which also repelled any ocean microorganisms that would normally feed on paper and textiles.
"Also helping preserve these delicate remnants is that they rested in the very dark and cold ocean, which didn't allow for much oxygen to penetrate -- also slowing down the overall deterioration process," says Klingelhofer.
In general, once any object from Titanic is taken from the ocean floor (the recovery teams avoided removing items within the confines of the ship, respected as a memorial site), it undergoes an intense conservation procedure lasting anywhere from weeks to years. One of the first conservation steps is desalinization, a gradual weaning off of the salt water that has surrounded the object for a century.
After that, each of the recovered materials -- from metal to paper to wood -- is cleaned with a special substance in order to stabilize it and discourage further deterioration. At this stage, if clothing shows weak spots, backing cloth will be added.
"The supports for the objects are as invisible as possible so that we don't do anything more than we have to to change the story each object has to tell," says Klingelhofer.
Face-to-face with history
"What I hope most people coming to this exhibition come away with is that Titanic remains a touching story about resilience and loss," says museum president Romans. "In the end, what we learn most from the Titanic experience is that we still live in a very fragile world."
Indeed, and perhaps no exhibited object conveys so starkly how a fragile life can be cut so senselessly short than the display of a single work boot. Its owner is nameless and mute, yet he or she seems to scream out for all of Titanic's innocent victims.
"No matter how much knowledge of Titanic you come to the show with," says Lach, "there is nothing more powerful than coming face-to-face with a piece of history like that boot. It's so real, and you will connect with it in a way that I'm sure will surprise you."