Friday, January 12, 2007

Titanic Exhibit Worth a Look

Last week, my friend Sarah and I spent a couple of hours at the Atlanta Civic Center viewing the Atlanta Titanic Exhibit. She and I both have been Titanic buffs since childhood. We each had read Walter Lord's A Night to Remember and most everything else that we could get our hands on. With all that has been on display, neither of us had taken he opporunity to view remnants of one of the most famous tragedies of the 20th century. If you're in the Atlanta area and you're planning to visit the exhibit, you might not want to read my entire account of what Sarah and I saw in the exhibit hall, as I do give a lot away.
I have no personal connections to the Titanic. But my Mimi, who is now 95, and I used to talk about events that happened during her childhood. She was a little too young to have been cognizant of the event itself. But it was clear that the people of her generation were profoundly affected by Titanic, the discussions and resulting beliefs about (then) modern technology, and the stories told by the survivors.
My talks with her showed me that even a little girl from southwest Georgia, far removed from the icy waters of the north Atlantic, could be so affected by the totality of such a tragic event. It always amazed me that I could go to her and get some sort of perspective on such fascinating moments in time as Titanic, WWI, Pearl Harbor, the death of FDR, the assassination of JFK, man's first steps on the Moon, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and 9/11.
Upon entering the exhibit, you are assigned a passenger who was known to be on the Titanic the night she sank in April of 1912 off the coast of New Foundland. At the end of the tour, you learn the fate of your passenger. I'll withold his name in case any of you draw him, but he was a 3rd class passenger travelling with his wife, sister, and a group of travellers from County Mayo, Ireland. He and his family hoped to settle in Chicago.
The exhibit covers the whole of Titanic's life, as you begin with the White Star Line's building of Titanic and her sister ships, Brittanic and Olympic. Pictures line the walls of the dark exhibit halls showing important faces that had something to do with the concept and building of the ship. There were also lighted glass displays featuring mechanical part of Titanic recovered the ocean floor.
The exhibit then offers mock up examples of 1st and 3rd class passenger rooms along with dining utencils used in their respective dining quarters. There are also pictures of passengers known to be from all 3 classes, many of which show their families too. Personal objects such as spectacles, purses, shaving gear, and even garments like shoes, coats, and socks are on display.
There is even a mock iceberg designed to give you some sort of perspective as what 28 degree water feels like. And there is also a submersible like the one used in the recovery of Titanic. One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit for me was to see objects that were lifted from the ocean bed and huge pictures behind them of the recovery of those very same objects, two miles below the surface.
Now you know when you go into these things, you just want to touch something. That's just human nature. I know that the more hands that touch these items, the faster they will diminish. But there was a piece of the actual hull of the ship in a glass case with an air hole at the top. I pictured in my mind's eye leaning over and reaching through the hole and touching an actual piece of Titanic - the ship that I read about as a child and never thought anyone (let alone me) would see again. But then an Ellen Degeneres/Lucille Ball moment appeared in my head - better not try that, Button! You already have this feeling of reverence and respect for the dead as their stories are brought to life for you. So even in my weakest moment, I could never do that. Admit it, that selfish thought would cross your mind too. ;-)
The story becomes even more personal in the last 3 phases of your visit. Because this time when they show you objects and personal affects, these are actually assigned to the known owners. You read their names, their stories, and their fates. Some are incredible, such as the man that was kidnapped and put into forced labor on a ship bound from Europe to China. He escaped his captors in Egypt and was on his way back to the states. It almost sounds almost too incredible to be true.
And then the dreaded moment comes. The passenger's (whose summarized life on a card that you hold in hand) fate is revealed. Unfortunately, I learned that the Irishman assigned to me and his family died sometime during the sinking or minutes afterward in the icy, intolerant waters.
The final room of the exhibit deals with famous people on the ship. We've all read about the Astors, the Strausses, etc. But there are two Georgians travelling aboard Titanic who died that night, the writer and Pike Co. native, Jacques Futrelle and U.S. Army Major Archibald Butt of Augusta.
Futrelle was travelling with his wife, but, thankfully, their two children were safe at home. His wife's last moments with him included him escorting her to a lifeboat and smoking a cigarette as he prepared himself to die. She was one of the wives who wanted to share the fate of their husband. But he convinced her that she needed to survive for the sake of their children.
Major Butt was quite a prominent man. He was one of Teddy's roughriders in Cuba and served as an advisor and personal friend to both President T. Roosevelt and President Taft. He had been travelling in Europe to clear his mind before returning on Titanic. Once he got to Washington, D.C., he would have to choose between his two great friends, Roosevelt and Taft, as they were now working against one another. Captain Smith personally informed Major Butt that the ship had struck an iceberg, and that she would sink. Major Butt then went to work shephering women and children to lifeboats.
The Arlington National Cemetary's website has this quote from survivor, Mrs. Henry B. Harris:
"But oh, this whole world should rise in praise of Major Butt. The man's conduct will remain in my memory forever; the he showed some of the other men how to behave when women and children were suffering that awful mental fear that came when we had to be huddled into those boats. Major Butt was near me, and I know very nearly everything he did."

"When the order to take to the boats came he became as one in supreme command. You would have thought he was at a White House Reception, so cool and calm was he. A dozen or so women became hysterical all at once as something connected with a lifeboat went wrong. Major Butt stepped to them and said: 'Really you must not act like that; we are all going to see you through this thing.'

"He helped the sailors rearrange the rope or chain that had gone wrong and lifted some of the women in with gallantry. His was the manner we associate with the word aristocrat."
At the end of the exhibit, all that was left was the really cheesy gift shop. There, one could buy Titanic magnets, plates, cups, saucers, candy, t-shirt, and assorted books and documentary. Some of the items almost seem inappropriate just after seeing the exhibit.

But overall, it was a great way to spend a morning if you're a history or a Titanic buff. Sarah and I had lots to discuss over our late lunch at Cowtippers.


Rusty said...

Funny that you wrote about this, because at lunchtime yesterday I went and recorded a podcast with the folks running that exhibit. The education director was nice enough to narrate a walking tour. I'll send you a link when it's been edited and posted.

Button Gwinnett said...

Thanks Rusty, that should be fun to listen to!

Rusty said...

Here is a link to that podcast.

Rocky said...

Good recap. I hope to make it out to the exhibit. Did you happen to notice how long it will be at the Civic Center? The website only says "limited engagement".

Being assigned a passenger upon entering reminds me of the way the Holocaust Museum gives you a card for a concentration camp prisoner when you enter. I think attaching regular people to the event is a great way to remind our generation of the tragedy.

On another note, if you ever find yourself in Belfast you can visit the yard where the Titanic was built.

Button Gwinnett said...

Thanks Rusty - I always enjoy the podcasts that you and Amber do. From college football to politics, you guys have it covered. I can't wait to hear this particular one involving the Titanic exhibit.

Rocky, I too enjoyed the sort of personalization that you get from being assigned a passenger. I know its simple psychology, but it did add something for me. I am almost positive that the exhibit is scheduled to be here until sometime in June.

Since blogging about the exhibit I have heard from one person who didn't enjoy the exhibit that much because he felt there wasn't much to it. It wasn't terribly complex and I already knew probably 90% of everything that I heard or read there. But its the Titanic! It's amazing, it's morbid, it's a lesson reinforced.....don't piddle around, just go!! ;-)