Troubled Waters

With the controversial Titanic exhibition, wonders showcases the most famous maritime disaster ever.

by Michael Finger

THE LATEST INSTALLMENT OF WONDERS, OPENING Thursday, April 3rd, at The Pyramid, is unique in the history of the cultural series. Unlike the ancient treasures of Ramesses, or the gold and jewelled possessions of Catherine the Great, most of the objects on display here have no value, in and of themselves -- they're simply utilitarian pieces of paper, brass, iron, and glass.

But they have an immense, immeasurable value all their own, and possess what may be called a mythic power, for more than 300 of these items came from the long-lost wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic, probably the most famous maritime disaster of all time. Recovered over a period of years from the North Atlantic wreck site by a group called RMS Titanic, Inc., the exhibition includes personal items left behind by the passengers, such as letters, clothing, and playing cards; shipboard utensils, including White Star Line china and glassware; steamship relics like portholes and navigation lights; and much more.

"TITANIC: The Exhibition" presents the largest collection of Titanic artifacts ever put on display. How they were lost, how they were recovered, and how they came to Memphis is a story at times as turbulent as the North Atlantic.

R.M.S. Titanic -- The Ship

The tragic story of the Titanic really began in 1907, when J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of Great Britain's White Star Line, and Lord Pirrie, chairman of Belfast's Harland & Wolff shipyards, agreed to launch a stunning trio of leviathans -- the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Gigantic (later renamed the Britannic). The Olympic began her Atlantic service in 1911, but it was the Titanic -- a thousand tons larger and far more luxurious than her sister -- that caught the public's fancy.

On her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, she attracted a blue-ribbon passenger list. Besides Ismay himself, the great steamship was carrying Colonel John Jacob Astor, the multimillionaire builder of the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, among other holdings; Isador and Ida Straus, owners of Macy's; Benjamin Guggenheim, the mining and smelting millionaire; W.T. Stead, celebrated newspaper editor; Thomas Andrews, managing director of Harland & Wolff; and others whose names dotted the Social Registers in the U.S. and Great Britain.

The 337 first-class passengers, with their multitude of servants, occupied the spacious first-class cabins and suites on the upper decks, some of them paying today's equivalent of $45,000 for the privilege. More than 270 second-class passengers also booked a voyage on the Titanic, and far below, in windowless cabins and open berths, some 700 third-class, or steerage, passengers -- many of them immigrants carrying everything they owned -- were journeying to the New World. That was in addition to the more than 900 crew members, whose numbers included a gymnastics instructor and a squash pro.

All of them, passengers and crew alike, surely felt safe on the Titanic, a 45,000-ton ship almost a sixth of a mile long, with all the latest safety features, including 20 spacious lifeboats. What's more, a series of steel bulkheads separated the Titanic into 16 separate compartments. If the double-bottomed hull was punctured, water could flood one of the compartments, but with the flip of an electric switch on the bridge, watertight doors would slide shut and keep the water from the rest of the ship. The bulkheads didn't extend much above the waterline, but no one imagined a calamity that would flood a ship that high. Some years before, when he was master of another ship, even the Titanic's captain, Edward J. Smith, had said, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."

The Titanic sailed from Southampton at noon on April 10, 1912, picked up more passengers at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, and steamed west the following day. With a cruising speed of about 22 knots, she would arrive in New York harbor in five days.

By Sunday, April 14th, as the ship drew within 400 miles of North America, the weather turned unusually cold. Other boats in the area began to telegraph warnings about ice to the Titanic's two wireless operators, who stayed frantically busy transmitting passenger messages to mainland stations, such as Cape Race in Newfoundland. For reasons we'll never know, Captain Smith apparently ignored most of these warnings and continued to steam almost full speed ahead. "The cumulative effect of the messages -- warning upon warning, the whole day long -- was lost completely," writes Walter Lord in The Night Lives On. "The result was a complacency, an almost arrogant casualness, that permeated the bridge."

On that fateful Sunday evening, from just a few miles away, the Californian warned, "Say old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice," but the Titanic's wireless operator responded, "Shut up, shut up, I am working Cape Race," and cut off the friendly message without hearing the location -- dead ahead.

"What did you see?"

"Iceberg right ahead."

"Thank you."

With that brief, strangely polite, telephone exchange, lookout Fred Fleet in the crow's nest notified the bridge that the Titanic was on a collision course with an iceberg. His warning, of course, came just seconds too late, and three hours later the biggest and newest passenger liner in the world -- a ship deemed "unsinkable" by her illustrious passengers and crew -- lay at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Everyone, at first, thought it had been a close call. The helmsman spun the wheel, and the huge iceberg seemed to slide by the ship's starboard side. Some aboard the Titanic, though, knew she had hit something. Passengers said later they heard a noise like the tearing of silk, and another remembered it was like "rolling over a thousand marbles." Captain Smith raced to the bridge and ordered the crew to "sound the ship" to determine the damage. The news was sobering. Water was pouring into the first four watertight compartments and boiler rooms five and six. Smith summoned Thomas Andrews to the bridge, and after huddling over plans for a few minutes, the builder told Smith the Titanic was doomed. She was designed, he said, to remain afloat with two watertight compartments flooded, even three, and possibly four. But it was a mathematical certainty that she could not survive with five flooded. He gave the ship perhaps an hour.

Although conforming to -- even exceeding -- the regulations of the day, the Titanic carried just 20 lifeboats, enough for only about half the 2,201 passengers and crew on board. While the ship's wireless operators desperately signaled for help, the ship's crew began the perilous task of rounding up the passengers -- women and children first, of course -- and getting them into bulky life preservers and lowering them away in lifeboats.

It was a frantic scene. Many passengers dreaded to leave the warmth and safety of the Titanic for an open boat, even as the ship began to list and drop lower in the water, and wives refused to leave their husbands behind. In the panic and confusion, many boats left the ship half full. Crew members didn't think they could lower a lifeboat fully loaded, and others were anxious to get the boats as far from the ship as possible -- so they wouldn't get sucked under when she sank. Adding to the bedlam was the flash and boom of distress rockets being fired from the bridge.

Just a few miles away, two officers aboard the Californian, her engines shut down and her wireless operator asleep, quietly watched a big ship steam up from the south, stop in the water, and turn off most of her deck lights. As they pondered this curious behavior, they saw rockets flash in the air above the unknown vessel. They notified the master, Captain Stanley Lord, who asked if the rockets were company signals. When the officers said they didn't know, Lord went back to sleep. Even though one of the officers remarked, "A ship is not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing," no one bothered to wake up the wireless operator, and on deck the Californian's crew kept watch until the other ship had disappeared. The time, they told an inquiry later, was about 2:20 a.m.

T hose were the last moments of the Titanic. The huge ship heeled almost vertically in the water, stood there for a moment with her lights still blazing, almost defiantly, before plunging to the bottom. Hundreds of passengers left behind by the lifeboats were swept into the sea. The water temperature that night was 28 degrees, and they didn't live long. Still, they sent up a chorus of cries and moans that lasted for more than an hour, a horrifying sound that haunted those in the lifeboats for the rest of their lives. One of the great mysteries of the Titanic tragedy is why those in the boats never went back to rescue those in the water. Lifeboat 1, with a capacity for 40, carried away just 12 people -- seven of them crewmen from the engine room -- and they rowed away from the ship and never returned.

More than 1,500 people lost their lives that night. Captain Smith went down with his ship. So did Thomas Andrews. So did John Jacob Astor, after carefully putting his young wife into a lifeboat. And so did Isador and Ida Straus. Though urged by the crew to take a lifeboat, Mr. Straus refused to go before the other men, and Mrs. Straus would not leave her husband. They both sat in a deck chair and calmly waited for the end.

Ismay, however, saved himself by stepping into a lifeboat, and never lived it down. (As director of the White Star Line, and therefore the man responsible for the lack of lifeboats, he should have joined Captain Smith, said one naval authority: "So long as there was a soul that could be saved, the obligation lay upon Mr. Ismay that that one person and not he should have been in the boat.")

When dawn came, the shivering passengers huddled in the lifeboats finally saw a ship approaching. It was the Cunard liner Carpathia, summoned by the Titanic's fading SOS, who had steamed full-speed through the ice to make the rescue -- a feat that would earn Captain Arthur Rostron everlasting fame and the Congressional Medal of Honor. He picked up the last survivors and headed for New York, where friends and family anxiously awaited news. At least one American newspaper, hoping against hope, had already reported, "All Saved From Titanic After Collision" and boldly declared the stricken liner was being towed to safety. In a few more days, the world would learn the sad truth about the first, and final, voyage of the Titanic.

RMS Titanic --The Salvors

For 73 years, the location of the sunken Titanic eluded searchers. Even if the ship could be found, the great depth at which she lay -- some 12,500 feet below the surface -- was far below the capabilities of salvage operations. That didn't stop people from trying, though, and even before they found the ship, inventors proposed everything from stuffing the sunken hull with ping-pong balls to pumping it full of molten wax, both of which, being lighter than sea water, would presumably lift the hull to the surface. In the early 1980s, a Texas millionaire named Jack Grimm assembled a team that swept the seabed with underwater cameras, and even claimed to have videotaped one of the Titanic's mighty propellers, but most people took one look at the blurry image and decided he was mistaken.

On the evening of September 1, 1985, however, a weary crew watching a video monitor aboard the S.S. Knorr saw the unmistakable image of one of the Titanic's huge boilers lying on the ocean floor, and the hunt was over. For two months Dr. Robert Ballard, a marine geologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, had led a search team from the U.S. Navy and the French National Institute for Research and Exploration of the Sea (IFREMER), which towed Argo, a Honda-sized sled containing side-scanning sonar and underwater video cameras. The French team first scanned the area with their ship, Le Suroit, before quitting the search and turning over the mission to the Knorr. As Ballard's crew steered the sled back through the area where the boiler had been found (a feat Ballard said was "like flying a kite with a two-mile string"), they found more -- twisted hull plating, brass portholes, pieces of railings -- and finally came up against the rusty hull of the ship itself. The Titanic had been found.

On a subsequent visit to the ship in 1986, this time without the French team, Ballard and other experts from Woods Hole thoroughly explored the vessel, using a manned submarine called Alvin and a remote-controlled camera named Jason Jr. What they found came as a surprise to Titanic historians, for the ship was not resting at the bottom in pristine condition, but had, in fact, snapped completely in two between the third and fourth smokestacks. As Ballard wrote in National Geographic, "We know her fate, and it is not a pretty sight. Though still impressive in her dimensions, she is no longer the graceful lady that sank a mere five days into her maiden voyage."

The force of the ship's two-and-a-half-mile plunge through the icy water, combined with the tremendous pressure at the bottom, had utterly ravaged the Titanic. Thick streams of rust called "rusticles" shrouded the ship, the four massive stacks were ripped away, portions of her deck had peeled back like layers of cardboard, and the huge stern section -- mangled almost beyond recognition -- lay more than a thousand feet away. Hundreds of items which had tumbled out of the ship when she broke in two lay scattered in a "debris field" on the ocean floor.

Ballard's crew spent days photographing the ruins, but never touched any part of the ship (except to try the handle of a corroded safe lying on the bottom), and never made any attempt to bring any relic to the surface. On his last visit to the ship, he left a brass plaque on the stern that reads, in part, "Be it resolved that any who may come hereafter leave undisturbed this ship and her contents as a memorial to deepwater exploration." In his book The Discovery of the Titanic, Ballard writes, "For now, the greatest threat to the Titanic clearly comes from man. Now that the wreck's true position is known, its ownership becomes an issue. It lies within the offshore waters claimed by Canada, a claim not recognized by the United States. Fortunately, the Canadian government has strongly indicated it would oppose salvage. But in whatever jurisdiction the wreck falls, the Titanic belongs to all of us."

I n 1987, an international group of businessmen led by George Tulloch, a BMW dealer from Greenwich, Connecticut, formed RMS Titanic, Inc., which was granted exclusive salvage rights to the Titanic by a U.S. federal court in 1994. As long as RMS Titanic continues to explore the site on a regular basis, it will hold exclusive rights to the wreckage.

Working with the French group IFREMER (the same organization that had assisted Ballard) RMS Titanic used a tiny, deep-sea submersible vessel called the Nautile to make dozens of dives to the wreck from 1987 to 1996, bringing up more than 6,000 artifacts, ranging from the 4,000-pound ship's bollard to delicate china still bearing the White Star Line logo.

"These pieces are functional and utilitarian," says Jon Thompson, director of the Wonders series, "but they are exclamation points to people's stories."

Last summer, RMS Titanic even attempted to haul up a 21-ton chunk of the ship's steel hull, but only succeeded in getting it within a few hundred feet of the surface before the ropes lifting it snapped. "That was never supposed to be part of the Memphis show," says Thompson. "It was a symbolic raising of the Titanic, a PR stunt, but quite frankly I was never enamored with it."

The salvage of the Titanic has outraged a number of people, who feel the site should be preserved as a memorial to the hundreds of passengers who perished. "Since the late 1980s a group of entrepreneurs styling themselves RMS Titanic have claimed the most important merchant ship wreck in maritime history as their own." says Edward Kamuda, president and founder of the 5,000-member Titanic Historical Society. "Without historical or scientific credentials, they have set themselves up as judge and jury over the final fate of the Titanic and her victims." What's more, says Kamuda, "The whole process of conservation and display undertaken by RMS Titanic, Inc., is a shallow ploy aimed at deflecting attention away from the real reasons for recovery -- profit."

The Titanic Historical Society, says Kamuda, "actively discourage[s] the wanton destruction of the grave of the Titanic. While encouraging and actively helping the historical research and scientific recording of the wreck site [THS fully supported Ballard's explorations of the wreck], grave robbery can never be condoned."

In its exhibition agreement with the city of Memphis, RMS Titanic affirms that its primary goal is to "preserve and promote the memory of the Titanic with dignity and respect, and with due regard to Titanic's historical and maritime significance." To quiet the critics who call them "grave robbers," RMS Titanic has repeatedly stated that it is leaving the hull of the ship in peace, and is restricting its salvage efforts to the debris field.

That's not entirely true. One of the items in the Memphis exhibition, the brass navigation light from the Titanic's forward mast (which now lies crumpled across the ship's bridge) was plucked from the mast during the first salvage expedition to the ship.

But does that distinction really matter? Few people actually died inside the ship; if anything, the debris field itself is where many passengers' remains ended up -- as attested by the photos taken by Ballard's crew of the pairs of shoes lying side by side on the ocean floor, long after the bodies that once wore them had decayed.

"Yes, we are displaying objects from the wreck site, but we are doing them at the very highest museum standards," says Thompson. "We understand both sides of the debate, and we mention both sides of the debate in the show, but we try to be nonpartisan, nonpolitical. Besides, Titanic International is having its convention right here next week. Those are all [former] THS guys who have come around on the argument [against salvage] and realized that, look, it's a done deal, so let's go about conscientiously doing a good job of restoration, conservation, and documentation and share these objects with the rest of the world.

"And if you're trying to do the definitive story on the Titanic," he continues, "it would be criminal not to have the objects recovered from the bottom of the ocean. Nobody's interested unless they can see the real thing."

A fter carefully logging each find and packing it away in foam-lined containers, RMS Titanic shipped the relics to LP3 Conservation in Semur-en-Auxois, France, where restoration experts began the tedious process of trying to halt, and in some cases, actually reverse the long years of decay. (Items from the first dive in 1987 were sent to a different restoration lab, Electricite de France, in Saint-Denis.) The work is painstaking. Fragile paper items are freeze-dried before the sheets can be separated. Glass and china require little effort, but waterlogged wood and leather must be dried slowly or they will crumble. Even sturdy iron items can deteriorate quickly upon exposure to air unless the surface has been stabilized.

The conservation process adds enormous expense to the project, because many of the recovered objects will require constant care. "There's only so many plates and other things that you can bring up," says Thompson, "because once you get it, if you follow the rules of marine archaeology, you'll have the care and feeding of that for the rest of its life."

At this stage, RMS Titanic had invested some $20 million in the recovery operations, and Titanic buffs began to worry that the company would recoup its investment by selling off parts of the collection. In fact, writing in the museum journal Material History Review, Roger Knight, the director of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, acknowledges that his facility displayed a collection of 70 Titanic artifacts recovered by RMS Titanic because, "had we refused, the chance of dispersal by sale was very high." As it turns out, "The Wreck of the Titanic" in 1994 drew some 750,000 visitors to the museum -- a record.

"As anticipated, the feeling among a considerable part of the maritime archaeological world has been at best skeptical and at worst hostile," writes Knight. "At a time when countries are trying to increase the protection of historic wreck sites the museum was seen as flying in the face of professional archaeological opinion." Nevertheless, Knight feels RMS Titanic's conservation efforts are "of reasonable standard for the great depth of water" and have kept "less scrupulous operators from the wreck."

Thompson acknowledges that the Titanic artifacts may indeed be sold at a later time. "My understanding is that the commitment [by RMS Titanic] is to keep that collection together, and then sell it as a whole after they finish the exhibition series -- which could be up to 10 years from now." Possible buyers, he said, could be the British government, Disney, Universal Studios, or foreign investors. "I could see a Japanese consortium coming in here tomorrow and buying this stuff, but [RMS Titanic has] resisted any temptation to do that until they share it with the rest of the world."

A collection of Titanic artifacts goes on display in Germany this summer, and next year the show moves to St. Petersburg, Florida. No dates have been set after that.

T hose who had earlier accused RMS Titanic of greed probably weren't pleased when the company began a series of odd promotions, beginning with full-page newspaper ads offering genuine Titanic coal for sale -- for $29.95 a lump. Purchasers found themselves in proud possession of a little chunk of coal about the size of an acorn, a Plexiglas holder with an engraved plaque, and not one but three handsome certificates.

The first "Certificate of Authenticity" announces that the buyer's name has "been registered by RMS Titanic, Inc., in the Permanent Museum Log as Conservator of Authentic Anthracite Coal recovered from the Research & Recovery Expedition of July/August 1994." The second piece of paper is a "Certificate of Gallery Recognition" which affirms "the official record of your name as a Titanic Patron in good standing at the United States Commemorative Fine Art Gallery." The third certificate "hereby validates that the official record of your ownership of genuine Titanic Coal is maintained in the official registry at the United States Commemorative Fine Art Gallery."

"I can't tell you how that hurts their [RMS Titanic's] image," says Thompson. "I think it's the most distasteful, cheesy approach to marketing. It's below the Franklin Mint level. But I can tell you this -- they've already sold a hundred thousand lumps of coal for 25 bucks a piece."

Efforts to tour the United States Commemorative Fine Art Gallery -- described in all the mailings as a "privately owned gallery" -- will be futile. The official seals attached to all these documents show an impressive domed building vaguely resembling the U.S. Capitol, but the only address is for the mail-order operation in Canton, Ohio. "It probably doesn't exist," says Thompson. "It's a file cabinet in a `boiler-room' operation somewhere."

Being a Titanic Coal Patron opens doors to plenty of other opportunities. A few months after mailing the coal, RMS Titanic sends a packet of "recorded documents" which include an official-looking "Declaration to Exhibit" form offering a chance to purchase an autographed "Tribute to Titanic Survivors" work of art. This framed piece includes a print of the Titanic "by world reknown [sic] Titanic historian and artist Michael V. Ralph" and autographed photos of four Titanic survivors (one of them, 100-year-old Edith Haisman, died in January). "Due to its historical significance," the accompanying letter reads, "the U.S. Commemorative Fine Art Gallery will record the date of this notice and reserves the right to withdraw this item from consideration at any time." In other words, act now.

A few days later another offering arrives from RMS Titanic, this time pitching a full line of Titanic commemorative items -- T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, caps, and reproductions of White Star Line glassware, china, and playing cards. There is also a small selection of books for sale, and conspicuously absent was Robert Ballard's The Discovery of the Titanic. It's not too hard to imagine Ballard's reaction to all this, but he's keeping silent. A spokesperson at his office in Woods Hole told the Flyer, "Dr. Ballard is not interested in commenting on anything that is appearing in Memphis."

TITANIC -- The Exhibition

From the moment Harland & Wolff began to build the world's largest liner, the Titanic has invited controversy, so it's perhaps not surprising that the exhibition has stirred a lot of debate. What's not debatable is that, with almost 400 priceless artifacts on display -- including 70 pieces of Titanic-related memorabilia from private collectors -- this is the biggest show Wonders has ever put on in Memphis.

The show's journey to Memphis began in 1994, while RMS Titanic was putting on the exhibition in England. Thompson says the museum director there, who had previously worked with Wonders on the "Napoleon" exhibition, told company president George Tulloch, "`If you're going to do a show in North America, you have to do it in Memphis; they do the best in the world with blockbuster exhibitions.' They came down here to see ["The Imperial Tombs of China"] and the rest is history."

And there was another factor. "There's no question that my investment drew the show here," says Thompson, referring to the more than 400,000 shares of stock he owns in RMS Titanic, Inc. In the late 1980s, when the group was "a struggling treasure-hunting company," Thompson met Tulloch in New York. "They approached me as someone who might want to invest in the company and give them a little help with it. My theory, right or wrong, was that if I could invest in exchange for a position on their board of directors, I could direct the show to Memphis." Thompson served on the board until resigning last January.

"I talked to the city attorney about the whole deal, who said, as long as you don't have a contract with the city there's nothing wrong with it," he continues. "But as soon as you go to contract, you can't be on the board, and you can't own stock. So I did everything I was supposed to. I resigned from the board and put my stock in a blind trust. I went to the same lawyer Ned McWherter used [with his investments] when he was governor, so there'd be no conflicts.

"I don't even know what stock I've still got in [RMS] Titanic," he says, "but I can tell you it's worth about half what I paid for it, so I'm not making any money from this."

T he Wonders staff --with a number of outside vendors -- has transformed dusty, bare-concrete corridors along the north side of The Pyramid into 15 galleries that allow visitors to follow the entire history of the Titanic. After first glimpsing a detailed scale model of the sunken bow section as it appears today ("the `rivet-counters' won't be able to criticize it," says Thompson), they pass through rooms devoted to the ship's design and construction, walk through a full-size replica of the liner's Veranda Cafe and First Class stairway, and then find themselves on the boat deck on the night of April 14, 1912. "You'll see the empty davits, the lifeboats are gone, and we want people to have that lump in their throat, and go, `Holy shit, I'm on board, and I'm going to die,'" says Thompson.

Afterwards, visitors pass through exhibits devoted to the Carpathia's rescue, the discovery of the wreck in 1985, and modern-day recovery and conservation efforts. The final gallery serves as a memorial to the Titanic's dead.

"I want people to leave this exhibition not unlike the Holocaust Museum," says Thompson, "where they walk out and think, `My god, those people had a hell of an experience.'"

"TITANIC: The Exhibition" is on display at The Pyramid April 3rd through September 30th. For tickets, call 576-1290 or 1-800-2MEMPHIS (outside Memphis).

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