Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition

Titanic Sinking by Willy Stöwer, from Wikipedia Commons

Over 300,000 people have visited Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum since it opened in May, making it the most visited exhibition staged in Melbourne.

Ninety-eight years since the Titanic sank in the Atlantic ocean its fascination for us shows no signs of diminishing. The combination of luxury, progress, fanfare, class distinctions and tragedy make it as compelling a story today as it was in 1912. This exhibition has 280 artefacts from the wreck, which was discovered in 1985.

The exhibitions begins with the Construction Gallery. Large scale photographs of the planning and building of the ship give the viewer an inkling of the optimism of the era- an age of flying machines, horseless carriages, phonographs and modernity- the dawning of a new era. Jaunty background music adds to the feeling of buoyancy, despite our the knowledge of the outcome.

Some of the artefacts like a Royal Doulton hand basin, dinner crockery and glassware look remarkably pristine. Olive pips found in the bottom of large ceramic jars and a jar with face powder still in it are two of the more surprising finds.

Because most of the artefacts are small and battered by over seventy years underwater, they have been augmented by various replicas, such as first and third class cabins. These give the viewer an idea of the opulence of the ship and class distinctions on board. As you make your way down a low-ceilinged corridor to the third-class cabins you are accompanied by the throbbing sound of the ship’s boilers. As the visitor continues on to the “Iceberg Gallery”, the sound of the engines is louder and the temperature seems to drop as you enter a darkened space. The ceilings here are high and the walls black. One wall has tiny lights winking to suggest a starry sky and there is a wall of ice for visitors to touch, which reflects the temperature of the water that night.

Before you exit you can find out the fate of the passenger whose boarding pass you have been clutching throughout the exhibition. My second-class passenger, Nellie Becker and her three children, all survived, much to my relief, but what was striking about the Memorial Gallery, was the survival rate according to class. Most of the first-class passengers survived and most of the third-class passengers perished. Also many more women than men survived.

What wasn’t mentioned was that women were not allowed to testify at the Titanic hearings. This angered first-class passenger, Molly Brown, an American human rights campaigner who assisted many of the other survivors and organised a survivors’ charity raising $10,000 while still on board the rescue ship.

RMS Titanic Inc, who recovered the artefacts and created this exhibition play a great role in conserving the objects and continue expeditions to retrieve more, but despite claims that the exhibition is “exclusive”, there are several touring the world concurrently, so if you missed out on seeing this absorbing show, it’s sure to be back in Australia some time in the future.

RMS Titanic Inc.

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