Tuesday, March 21, 2006


S. Fla. exhibition displays Titanic treasures


The Miami Herald
By Daniel Chang
March 20, 2006

Titanic photographed at Southampton shortly before
departure on April 10, 1912. View more photos

A leather pouch, a porthole cover, a porcelain sprinkling can -- unremarkable items, except for the stories they tell of the more than 1,500 people who died aboard the most famous shipwreck in history, the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Beginning Saturday, the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium will showcase these and more than 200 other artifacts salvaged from 12,500 feet below the North Atlantic, where the Titanic struck an iceberg, broke into pieces and sank on the calm night of April 14, 1912.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, produced by Atlanta-based RMS Titanic Inc., which has exclusive salvage rights to the wreckage, aims to tell the whole story of the lavish vessel -- from its construction in a Belfast shipyard, to its acclaim as the world's greatest (and unsinkable) luxury liner, to its doomed maiden voyage.

But while the story of the Titanic is ultimately a tragedy, Museum of Science leaders hope the exhibition foreshadows a bright future for the 50-year-old institution, which plans to build a $275 million science museum and aquarium on the waterfront at Bicentennial Park.

Titanic is the museum's first ''blockbuster'' exhibition and ''It really is a stepping stone on the way to a new museum,'' says Gillian Thomas, president and CEO.

The future Museum of Science, which has yet to be designed, will have more exhibition space and more amenities, such as an aquarium and an interactive science park and wildlife center.

With more activities and more gallery space, the Museum of Science will need to sell more tickets and its exhibits will need to resonate with broader audiences.

Part of Thomas' strategy is to host more ''major exhibitions'' that blend science and popular interests, she says. In the fall, the museum will host the U.S. debut of Science of Aliens, an exhibit on extraterrestrial life currently showing at London's Science Museum.

The museum's vice president of finance, Nancy McKee, says she ''would love to see 400,000 people come through here'' during Titanic's six-month run -- about double the museum's usual attendance between March and October.

With higher expectations come higher ticket prices. For Titanic, the museum will charge $19.50 for tickets -- nearly double its usual $10 admission fee, which McKee says will likely not return once Titanic pulls up anchor.

''Our prices are still below a lot of the other attractions,'' she says, ``less than Parrot Jungle [$24.95 for adults and $19.95 for children], [Miami] Seaquarium [$27.95 for adults and $21.95 for children] and King Tut [$25 for adults and $14 for children on weekdays].

``We spent years at the same price level and it was time to move forward.''

For about twice the price of a movie ticket, Titanic audiences will be immersed in a virtual environment enhanced by dramatic lighting, theatrical sets and interactive exhibits, says John Zaller, who designed the show.

''We've created a series of moods within our galleries that sort of bring to life the time and the story of the Titanic,'' Zaller says.

Despite the exhibit's liberal use of theatrical elements, Thomas emphasizes that there is ''a lot of interesting science'' behind the recovery and conservation of Titanic artifacts.

Arnie Geller, president and CEO of Premier Exhibitions, which produced Titanic, says teams of divers, scientists, historians and others have collaborated for years on the recovery and conservation of the artifacts.

The wreck site, about 450 miles southeast of the Newfoundland coast, is 12,500 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic, Geller says, where the pressure is 6,000 pounds per square inch.

Divers from RMS Titanic, Inc. first plumbed those depths in summer 1987 and have returned six times since -- the last in 2004. Each of the company's expeditions takes 35 to 45 days, Geller says, during which teams of divers descend about 20 times a day using small, submarine-like vessels.

It takes more than two hours to reach the wreck site, Geller says, and each dive lasts 12 to 15 hours. Divers use remote-controlled cameras and other devices to search the wreck and retrieve artifacts from the site, which stretches ''literally for miles'' across the ocean floor, Geller says.

To date, divers have retrieved more than 5,500 artifacts. The largest is a 20-ton section of the ship's hull and the smallest is a child's marble, found inside a hand basket.

In between are items such as a third-class cabin porthole cover, a diamond-studded bracelet, a watertight door shaft, perfume vials and a steering wheel stand.

With so many artifacts, Premier Exhibitions usually has multiple shows going -- Titanic exhibits are also in Las Vegas, Long Beach (Calif.), Oshkosh (Wis.), St. Louis and Athens, Greece.

Zaller says he designed the Miami exhibition to resonate with South Florida's immigrant roots and its class disparities, as well as to emphasize historic connections between the Titanic, its passengers and Florida.

One local connection exists between John Jacob Astor IV, who reportedly was the wealthiest man aboard the Titanic, and his son, John Jacob Astor V, who lived in Palm Beach and founded the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain, Zaller says.

''We're also telling the story of Miami,'' Zaller says, ``how it was in 1912 and how the city of Miami reacted to the news of the sinking of the Titanic.''

Among the roughly 2,200 Titanic passengers were many immigrants seeking a new life in America -- a fact Zoller hopes will resonate. ''Miami is certainly a port of entry for lots of new Americans,'' he says. ``The story of immigration and the American Dream still continues.''

And then there's the disparate treatment afforded to the Titanic's first-class passengers, who were pampered into a stupor, and its third-class clientele, who were given only two bathtubs to share among more than 700 people.

''There's some jewelry worn by the ladies of first class [that will be exhibited],'' Zaller says. ``Those pieces sort of speak to the opulent side of Miami. There are connections on both sides.

``This also helps to tell the story of the very distinct class separation that was so much a part of the time when Titanic was built and sailed and also was a lot of the reason why there were less people who were lost in first class than there were in third class.''

In Titanic, Zaller sees stories that ``we all can relate to. It has heroes and it has villains. It has victims. It has thousands of people who are contained in this vessel and each one of them with hundreds of stories.

''That's not unlike our lives,'' he says.


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