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National Geographic Museum explores Titanic’s legendary tale
BY ANNE ELDER
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
A century after its sinking, the Titanic has been brought back to life in Washington, D.C., in an elaborate exhibit telling the story of the ship from its construction to the present-day exploration of its ruins.
“Titanic: 100 Year Obsession” at the National Geographic Museum features interactive timelines and games, video clips, historic photographs, props from the 1997 blockbuster film and recent coverage of the ruins from that film’s director and National Geographic explorer James Cameron.
In April 1912, the RMS Titanic was labeled “virtually unsinkable,” with prices for the voyage ranging from $36 in third class to $800 for the most expensive first-class tickets. The ship set sail on April 10, 1912, hoping to reach America in six days.
It never made its destination, sinking into the North Atlantic after a collision with a massive iceberg.
Using set decorations from Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic, the exhibit entrance has been transformed into the ship’s interior, which museum director Rich McWalters said was meant to set the mood for museum visitors.
Such props, including the security room, and first-class lounge and accommodations, all weave into the exhibit alongside panels telling the story of the Titanic.
At the beginning of the exhibit, museum visitors can browse through the National Geographic Channel iPad app to discover rare video footage of the Titanic setting sail, pictures of the ship’s interior and floor plans, and an in-depth timeline of its origin.
McWalters said that all of the back story was meant to emphasize why the Titanic was such a big deal at the time.
“This was an age when trans-Atlantic transportation was done by ships, ocean liners. It was a very competitive business,” he said. “The White Star Line decided they wanted to produce the biggest and the best.”
In a two-minute video excerpt from “Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron,” set up between the curtains of a first-class lounge, visitors get a glimpse of the boat embarking on her final voyage through re-enactments and current wreck footage.
Past the first-class accommodations, an intricate scale model of the Titanic is on display, surrounded by photographs and a cherub statue, another prop from the film.
The 18-foot model was built by Gary Kohs of Fine Art Models, a small company based in Royal Oak, Mich., using the original blueprints for the ship.
“The model is exact in every single detail, so that’s kind of remarkable to see,” McWalters said.
Visitors can enter the re-created Marconi Room, where the main communications took place throughout the journey. At the time, the wireless equipment found on the Titanic was the most advanced for any ship. The interactive Morse Code station allows museum-goers to experience how messages were formed using dashes and dots.
Just a few steps away from the Morse Code and Marconi Room is a panel depicting the “distress signals” of the ship—foreshadowing the next step in the exhibit.
A DISASTER AT SEA
On the chilly night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic found itself needing more than the communications devices on display, as illustrated by the lifeboat in the museum, another film relic.
In a swift turn from the exhibited luxurious opening atmosphere, artifacts begin to reflect the terror of the Titanic’s descent, beginning with a painting of the ship halfway submerged in the Atlantic Ocean.
News of the sinking spread fast, but not always accurately. At the time of the incident, the White Star Line insisted that the intercepted radio signals didn’t mean the Titanic had sunk. The New York Times, acting on a hunch, was the only newspaper to get the first story right.
Headlines cover one wall of the exhibit, making the shock of the sinking a reality—“Her Side Ripped Open as by Giant Can Opener” and “Band Played Till the End,” two of them read.
The ship, holding 2,208 passengers, had only 20 lifeboats available. While this number met the regulations set forth by the British Board of Trade based on tonnage, the Titanic only had space for half its passengers.
For every two passengers who survived, four died. In an eerie display, this statistic is depicted by two life jackets hanging on the wall, with the fading pictures of four others surrounding them.
More than 1,500 people died in the tragedy.
For the next 73 years, the remains of the Titanic would lie undiscovered in the Atlantic Ocean, until a team of explorers set out to find the ruins.
RECOVERING A TRAGEDY
To tell the complete story of the Titanic, McWalters said they utilized other National Geographic resources, like its magazine and television channel, to create a “cross-platform initiative”—weaving various multimedia aspects together.
“We like to make sure that there is a good story told; we like to do it in the most compelling way possible,” McWalters said.
Bob Ballard, an ocean explorer who was part of the team that discovered the first remains of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in 1985, recounted the experience in a 10-minute video clip from “Titanic, A Moment.”
He said that while the team was excited by the discovery at first, the four days after were somber once they realized that they had uncovered such a tragic site.
Using an interactive touch-activated table, visitors can test their Titanic knowledge with a fact-check quiz, browse the photo and video archive, view the deck plans of the ship, explore the Mystic Ballard archive or search for the ruins in the “12,450 Feet Below Challenge.”
The remainder of the exhibit focuses on the haunting remains of the ship, with a wreck model that was used in the film and a model of the new technology developed to acquire advanced footage of the ruins.
As visitors exit the museum, the cultural importance of the Titanic is highlighted with various movie posters, books and a photo opportunity with a bow of a boat—“so that everyone has a chance to get their ‘king of the world’ moment,” McWalters said.
With the pop-culture references, visitors are reminded of the public’s obsession with the Titanic, as previously referenced by Ballard in the video clip.
“Every generation rediscovers the Titanic. It just doesn’t die,” Ballard said.
WANT TO GO:
What: “Titanic: 100 Year Obsession” exhibition
Where: National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C.
When: Through July 8
Cost: $8 adults; $6 students, seniors, military; $4 children (ages 5–12)
Info: events.nationalgeographic.com, natgeotv.com/titanic
COLONIAL BEACH REMEMBERS TITANIC AND OTHER MARITIME DISASTERS
If you’re looking for a Titanic exhibit closer to home, the Museum at Colonial Beach is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking with “Maritime Disasters.”
The exhibit features replicas of items uncovered from the wreckage, like dishes and dresses, photos and other memorabilia.
Beyond the exploration of the Titanic, the museum will feature photos and newspaper accounts of the sinking of the Wawaset, a steamboat that sunk in the Potomac River in 1873. The sinking is considered the worst maritime disaster to occur in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
“Maritime Disasters” is complemented by the permanent exhibition of the Waterman’s Room, which depicts the Oyster Wars of the Potomac River.
The exhibit will run for approximately three months, depending on the interest of visitors.
Info: Museum at Colonial Beach, 128 Hawthorne St. Open Saturday and Sunday, 1–4 p.m.; second Fridays, 6–8 p.m. Free. 804/224-3379, museumatcolonialbeach.com.
Anne Elder is a University of Mary Washington student and freelance writer
for The Free Lance–Star.