Monday, May 15, 2006


Artifacts from the Titanic come to San Francisco's Metreon


Inside Bay Area
By Monique Beeler
May 09, 2006

A view of the Iceberg Gallery at "Titanic: Aritifact Exhibition."

What were her plans that last, moonless night?

Did she attend the 10-course meal in the first-class dining room? Who were her companions as she dined on oysters, veal consomme and peaches in chartreuse jelly?

Perhaps she played a game of bridge in the Cafe Parisien?

We don't know who she was, but the contents of her suitcase — including a 14-karat gold stick pin topped by a fox head with two red glass eyes, a gold locket and a hand-carved miniature die — give a tantalizing peek at what she thought important to bring aboard the RMS Titanic.

This unknown passenger, likely a resident of the luxury liner's first-class quarters, is among dozens whose stories and long lost belongings go on public display in "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" starting June 10 and running through January 2007 at the Metreon in San Francisco.

Although some marine archaeologists and historians frown on the retrieval and display of objects from the Titanic, millions of people have flocked to the exhibition in some 20 countries in the past 12 years, said exhibition designer John Zaller, of RMS Titanic Inc., which owns the wreckage and has conducted seven collection dives.

On its storied maiden voyage, the reputedly unsinkable Royal Mail Steamer Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the early morning of April 15, 1912, killing 1,522 of its 2,227 passengers.

"(The exhibition) follows the chronological story of the Titanic from its conception at the height of the Gilded Age to its design, construction and sailing, and the real celebratory atmosphere that surrounded that," Zaller said in an interview earlier this week.

A steering wheel from the docking bridge, china printed with the White Star Line logo and a brass binnacle — the metal bowl holding a compass — are among the 260 objects expected to accompany the 17,000-square-foot show.

An ornately scrolled base that once supported a bronze cherub at the foot of the Titanic's grand staircase will be on view, as will a leather satchel for jewelry, a woman's diamond ring and paper currency.

"There are a pair of binoculars from a passenger," Zaller said. "The irony is the lookout that night the ship hit the iceberg didn't have binoculars — they had misplaced them," Zaller said. "(Lookout) Frederick Fleet later said if he'd had binoculars, they would have missed the iceberg by 500 feet."

One of the most impressive — and massive — objects on display will be a 17-by-26-foot, 30,000-pound hunk of the ship's port side from C-deck, a middle deck housing first-class passengers.

"There are still some portholes with glass in it," Zaller said. "It's twisted from the ship being torn apart."

Zaller and his crew are trying to not just emphasize the material remains of the ship.

When visitors enter the exhibit they will receive a White Star Line boarding pass printed with the name, age and hometown of an actual passenger. Tickets also list the passenger's reason for traveling. Miss Mary Davis, 28, of London, for instance, was considering a move to the United States but wanted to spend time in New York with her sister before making up her mind.

For every city the exhibition travels to, inevitably there's a story of a passenger from the area. San Francisco was home to first-class passenger Dr. Washington Dodge, 52, his wife Ruth, 34, and their 4-year-old son Washington Jr. A physician turned politician, Dodge and his family were among 705 people rescued by the Carpathia.

"He survived the sinking and about a month later, he gave a (talk about) the sinking in San Francisco and basically broke down in tears when he was describing the cries of the drowning, the people who were in the water," Zaller said. "He also later said he owed his life to a steward who he met on board and (who) forced him onto a lifeboat."

One gallery is devoted to stories about the lifeboats, including many that were lowered into the frigid water filled to only half their capacity. In another gallery, visitors are encouraged to touch a 16-by-9-foot wall of ice modeled after a lookout's sketch of the fatal iceberg.

"When someone is opened up to the story in a visceral way, all the other information and the hard science and social-historical research will come through in a way that will stay with the visitor long after they leave the exhibit," Zaller said.

Some experts, however, question RMS Titanic Inc.'s motivation for recovering items from a place that is an underwater grave site.

"Hardline underwater archaeologists believe that when artifacts are removed from a shipwreck, they're taking evidence away from the incident that has taken place there," said Daniel Martinez, historian for the National Park Service at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Zaller emphasized that objects are taken only from the one-mile debris field surrounding Titanic, conserved by experts in museum-quality conditions and that they are presented in a way that brings "honor and dignity to the 2,227 passengers and crew who were on board the ship."

When the Institute of Nautical Archaeology excavates a shipwreck, the project generally takes 20 to 25 years, says INA Executive Director James Delgado, an historian and land and sea archaeologist who has dived to Titanic.

"That involves three to five years of digging," he says."For roughly every year you've been digging, it takes three to four years to analyze."

The Titanic objects retrieved by RMS Titanic Inc. seem to be in good condition, but scholars such as Martinez and Delgado worry that some damage has been done that could jeopardize future research.

Ultimately, Delgado and Martinez agree that there is some merit in recovering selected personal effects from shipwrecks, if the science is precise and the presentation promotes the historic story behind the object.

"While this display is powerful, there could have been another way to do it," Delgado says.

The Metreon is at 101 Fourth St. in San Francisco. Tickets will be priced at $14.95 to $19.95; free for children under 4. Visit


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