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'Titanic' Exhibit Opens in Chicago Museum - 2002-07-17

It has been 90 years since the ocean liner Titanic struck and iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic ocean, yet interest in that disaster remains high. Millions of people worldwide saw the Hollywood movie, Titanic, two years ago. Millions have also seen artifacts from the wreck displayed in museums.

A touring exhibit of Titanic artifacts is at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry for the next few months, and includes a number of items on display for the first time.

Titanic: The New Exhibition comprises dozens of artifacts recovered from the ship's final resting place 700 kilometers south of Newfoundland, Canada. The pieces range from small vials of perfume samples to a 13-metric ton section of the Titanic's hull.

Exhibit designer Mark Lach took us on a tour. Visitors are asked to imagine themselves boarding the Titanic for its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. The ship is so new that the hallway leading to the first class cabins still smells of new paint.

The hallway leads past the first class cabins to the ship's grand staircase. "This was for first-class passengers only," Mr. Lach said. "They only could come down or go up these steps. If the rich, famous, wealthy, the celebrities on board were to gather, they probably would gather right here and say, 'I'll meet you at the cherub,' or, 'I'll meet you at the bottom of the grand staircase.'"

Actors chat with visitors, addressing them as fellow passengers.

Good morning, passengers.
Enjoying your voyage?
Very good.
Is this your first time on White Star?

Mr. Lach said visitors are asked to imagine themselves aboard the Titanic for its fateful voyage, because this exhibit relies heavily on personal stories of passengers and crew.

One of the new items on display is and inspection card belonging to Marion Meanwell, a 63-year-old British woman.

"She was on her way to the United States to reside in New York City," Mr. Lach said. "She was originally scheduled to travel on a ship called the Majestic. The Majestic and a number of other ships at the time, their voyages were canceled because of a coal strike. All of these ships were powered by coal. Titanic had plenty of coal, so the White Star Line transferred some of these passengers. You can imagine the hope, the expectation and the excitement of traveling on the ship the whole world was talking about, when she was changed from the humble Majestic to the Titanic."

Ms. Meanwell was among the 1,500 people who perished when the Titanic sank on April 14.

Other new artifacts include what is left of the ship's steering wheel; a hub and a few spokes; and the ship's telegraph.

Mr. Lach continued, "The officer on duty would have used that handle to signal to the engine room to stop when they heard the three bells, you hear them ringing in the background, and reverse the engines."

It took the Titanic more than two hours to sink. There were only 16 lifeboats aboard, not nearly enough for the 2,200 passengers and crew. Eight hours passed until another ship, the Carpathia, was able to reach the Titanic and pull 705 survivors from the icy water. A block of ice gives visitors an idea of what the passengers endured.

"Put your hand on that," Mr Lach said. "Try to hold it there and hold it there. You want to pull away because it gets a little painful. The water that night that most people found themselves in, because most people did not drown when Titanic sank, they were actually in the water with their life jackets on and they froze to death. But the water was actually colder than that ice because salt water freezes at a lower temperature."

Quotes from survivors line the wall, describing the Titanic's deadly encounter with the iceberg - just a dull thump. It did not seem it was any great impact at all.

The Titanic has been visited by researchers and salvage crews more than 100 times since 1987. The company RMS Titanic Inc. has sole salvage and photography rights to the site, 3,800 meters underwater. Mr. Lach saw the wreck two years ago.

"We were sitting in the submersible," he said, "when the lights came up - right at the bow stem. The water was very clear. As we started to float, what felt like flying, up the bow stem, past the enormous anchors and over the bow railing, it was not only exciting but surprisingly, to me, an emotional experience. I knew where I was. I knew what happened at this place."

When Titanic's artifacts were last in Chicago two years ago, nearly 900,000 people lined up to see them. Mr. Lach said visitors seem to make a connection to the passengers' personal items and their stories.

He said, "If this was the largest moving object ever built and it was built to handle cargo, if that was a cargo ship coming across the North Atlantic, it would have made the news, but would not have lasted more than 90 years in our consciousness. It is all about humans."

Titanic: The New Exhibition is at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry through the end of October.