Titanic survivors

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Sean Coughlan looks at objects that survived the sinking of Titanic, and how they reveal some of the class divisions that determined the fate of many of the passengers.

More than nine decades after it sank into the freezing waters of the Atlantic, Titanic continues to hold public attention. And to sate that curiosity, another major exhibition about the ill-fated liner is in London, with the Science Museum staging "Titanic: the Artefact Exhibition" until September, putting on show items recovered from the wreck.

It's probably safe to assume that the exhibition will draw large numbers of visitors, because everything about the doomed ship has always pulled the crowds. There were crowds cheering when she left Southampton on her maiden voyage in 1912, and there were shocked crowds mobbing newspaper sellers when the first reports arrived of its sinking.

And whether it's a Hollywood movie or a touring exhibition, the story of Titanic has always exerted a grim fascination and pulled in the punters.

This latest exhibition is a mixture of objects from the ship and a series of displays that seek to put them in context. A journey through the exhibition follows a chronological path from the design and construction of Titanic in Belfast, through its brief voyage and collision with an iceberg, and finally to the undersea exploration of the wreck site.

The plushness of a first-class cabin is recreated, alongside the more spartan conditions of the third-class passengers. This reflects how Titanic embodied the social divisions of the era, with first-class passengers paying more than pound;800 to cross the Atlantic in luxury, when there were crew members who earned no more than pound;1 per week.

There is also an "iceberg gallery", where visitors can touch a model of the jutting spar of ice that ripped open Titanic like a "Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin". But what is difficult to convey is the huge bulk of the iceberg. Titanic weighed 46,000 tons - less than a tenth of the weight of the iceberg.

But it will be the objects from the ship that will really capture the imagination - the jewellery, the White Star Line china, the clothing and perfume bottles. These all have the peculiar fascination of everyday items made poignant by tragedy, ordinary objects that are now relics of an event that has become synonymous with over-ambition and disaster. Among the most symbolic items on show is the ship's bell, rung by the young look-out, Fred Fleet, as he shouted a warning that there was an iceberg right ahead.

Within a few hours of this bell sounding, the "unsinkable" Titanic had sunk, taking more than 1,500 passengers and crew to their deaths.

While there had been room for a squash court, heated swimming pool, Turkish bath and Parisian cafe, there had not been enough space allocated for lifeboats.

As well as drawing crowds, Titanic has always courted controversy. After the sinking, there were questions asked about why so many more first-class passengers were rescued, compared with those with second and third-class tickets. And the disaster highlighted the harshness of the working conditions - there were reports, for example, of the band-players' wages being stopped from the moment the ship sank.

The disaster coincided with the emergence of mass-circulation newspapers, and the contro-versies about who was to blame for her loss and whether ships had failed to come to her rescue were fuelled by the unprecedented Press attention. Radio was also being used to send stories around the world, and the disaster could also be described as the first global news event.

In recent years, the raising of items from the wreck has sparked further controversy, with accusations that such explorations show a lack of respect for the dead and that their personal possessions should be allowed to stay undisturbed under the sea.

But it is this identification with individuals caught up in a terrible drama that really gives Titanic its hold over the public imagination. And this exhibition encourages visitors to experience the doomed voyage through the eyes of one of the passengers. Everyone is given a "boarding pass" as they enter the exhibition, with the name of a real passenger - it might be a millionaire or a poor emigrant - so that they can see the conditions in which they would have travelled and discover at the end whether they had died or survived.

But whatever the fate of your passenger, it's certain that public interest in the story of Titanic will survive for many years to come.

Titanic: the Artefact Exhibition, Science Museum, London. May 16 to September 28. Adults pound;9.95, children pound;6.95. To book, Tel: 0870 870 4868

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