in Victoria, British Columbia
By Chris McBeath

My pass from White Star Line listed me as “Crew Member James M. Smith”. My husband was “Second Class Passenger James Matthew McCrie”. As two of the 2,228 individuals who sailed on Titanic’s fated voyage, their journey is poignantly captured in Titanic, The Artifact Exhibit runs at the Royal British Columbia Museum, April 14 to October 14, 2007.

While hers is a story etched in our psyche, this exhibition brings the tragedy much closer to home than the movie, Titanic, by sharing artifacts from elegant dinner ware and a broken clarinet to personal belongings including letters which, through quirk of circumstance, have been preserved.

Replicas of cabins, dining areas and the famous oak and gilded staircase help put the artifacts in context and throughout the exhibition, displays unravel the Titanic story still further. For example, you might be surprised to learn that the grand staircase incorporated linoleum into each step: in 1911, the material was more precious than marble. Did you know that the Titanic burned more electricity than many small towns of the day? That its engines, over 45-foot tall, are the largest ever built? And that while first class passengers languished in multi-roomed $4,500 cabins (i.e.: more than $50,000 today) tickets for third class travelers were only $35? Regardless of passage, though, when the Titanic submerged, the chill factor was the great equalizer. This exhibition has a large wall of ice, so cold that it burns your fingers within seconds, and it fuels your imagination to touch that night.

Creating the Titanic exhibition has been no small feat. Lying at a depth of 2.5 miles, pressure around the wreck runs at three tons per square inch and darkness is blacker than ebony. The Titanic doesn’t invite visitors. The descent from the surface takes almost two hours in highly technical mini-subs. Equipped with remote-control cameras, lights and purpose-built retrieval arms, every acquisition was a painstaking journey of days – even weeks.

The final display in the exhibit puts faces to names. It also shares the stories of individuals like John Jacob Astor, Titanic’s wealthiest passenger, and survivor Margaret Tobin Brown who ‘having been brined, salted and pickled in mid ocean’, went on to become one of America’s most celebrated philanthropists and an activist for women’s rights. A memorial wall lets you check your boarding card to see whether you lived or died and, as you leave, a trail of personal items – spectacles, a leather boot, a pair of suspenders – bring haunting reality to this poignant tale.

And it’s a story that still may have more to share although, as nature reclaims the Titanic wreck as her own, the time to salvage any tangible memory is diminishing. Rusticles, formed by microbes and other organisms, are eating the ship away and as they grow exponentially, so the speed of Titanic’s demise increases. Salvage operations have long been a sensitive subject, polarized between historians and collectors, and those who believe the Titanic site should rest in peace. It is a question posed eloquently through this exhibition and I, for one, feel privileged to have witnessed this fragment of history.

The Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit runs April 14 to October 14, 2007; tickets are $25.50 for adults; visit www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca for more information

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