From the moment I saw the first pages of the December 1986 issue of National Geographic, the RMS Titanic had me hooked. I talked about the disaster to anyone in my first-grade class who would listen. I read, and re-read, the article to the point of memorization. My biggest Christmas gift next year was a book about the expeditions to find the wreck written by Robert Ballard, the man who was featured in the National Geographic articles. I made Lego Titanics. I was able to draw the ship from memory by age eight, and would tell anyone who would listen that the fourth funnel was actually a fake. I read every singles scrap of information on both the ship and the sinking. For some reason, it spoke to me, even at a young age. It felt, to put it simply, mine.
One of my most prized possessions is an original copy of a 1912 book, “The Sinking of the Titanic and Other Great Sea Disasters,” published mere months after the disaster. I found it when I was 12 in an antique store, and gladly paid the $10 price that guy wanted for it. It shot up in value in 1997, when James Cameron’s “Titanic” created another legion of fans.
While I appreciated the interest, part of me felt jealous in the sharing. Where had you people been, I imagined asking, when I was making sand Titanics on the beach in Door County in 1989? Still, the movie did a lot to bring awareness to the event, even if no one named Rose or Jack had sex in the cargo hold in an act of rebellion against a cruel fiancé. One of the offshoots of the interest created in the movie was the traveling exhibitions that were made available for public viewing across the nation. I attended my second one tonight (the first being in 1999) at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I'm glad I was able to go (it was a birthday present), because any time you can stand next to the salvaged D-Deck gangway door from your icon and look through original window glass, it's a good time. It was a well-produced and informative display, but again, I found my old jealousies coming to a head. As I was standing next to a silhouetted outline of a lifeboat on the floor, I suppressed the urge to grab the person standing next to me and scream, with froth coming out of my mouth, “How many men were used to test these in Southampton before they were put on board? How many?” (The answer: 70). I wanted to bomb the crowd with the trivia that is lodged in my brain, to prove that I was somehow more Titanic than they were.
Still, I thought there were many moving artifacts presented in tasteful displays. What moved me the most was a simple pair of black woolen socks that belonged to someone who had died. They were found in his suitcase, along with a pair of pants and a vest, and brought to the surface years later. They moved me because they were so simple and humble. The man had taken them off to pack them, and died before ever getting a chance to wear them again. It’s tragic, in an infinitesimal way. The Titanic is a rare tragedy. If someone had a traveling exhibition on the Hindenburg, maybe a tenth of the people would show up. If someone had a traveling exhibit on the worst air disaster in history (two 747s colliding at Tenerife, Spain, which killed more than 580 people in 1977) it would be just me, and only if I wasn’t busy that day. No, Titanic is special – special because the people on board had so much time to decide whether or not to attempt to change their fate – to fight against an order of “women and children first;” to fight against an English class system whose raw survival percentages (63 percent of first-class passengers survived; 25 percent of those in third-class did) indicated just who was on top of the pile in life. The sinking is also unique because it took more than two-and-a-half hours for all of this human drama to play out, with all of the emotion and dreadful majesty that the spectacle encompassed.
The sinking wasn't even the only one of its kind in that era. The Empress of Ireland, another White Star liner, sank with more than 1,400 people aboard in May 1914 off the coast of Canada. She took nearly 1,000 of those people to the bottom with her - but most of those people were poor immigrants, and that ship sank in less than 20 minutes, making any sort of memorable dramatic narrative far less memorable than the agonizingly slow death of Titanic. With World War I less than six months away, these deaths would seem paltry in comparison to the millions lost on both sides during a four-year slog through the trench warfare meat grinder.
Towards the end of the exhibit, I saw a placard that explained how the artifacts were preserved, and how “even as you read this,” items still on the sea floor were rotting away due to the passage of time. These items, it said, needed to be preserved because (paraphrasing here) of their historical significance due to the era they represent. I take issue with this claim. It’s one thing to take items from the Titanic simply because you can make a whole hell of a lot of money doing so, but it’s quite another to claim that you are doing it in the name of preserving some era that people really don’t care about anyway. Items from this era are regularly cleaned out of Grandma’s house and given to Goodwill (if they are lucky), or thrown away out right. The only reason that these particular artifacts are worth preserving is because they were on the Titanic, pure and simple. To claim anything else is disingenuous.
I think Robert Ballard had the right idea in wanting to leave the site alone after he found it, to not take anything except photographs. Since 1986, the wreck has become something of a tourist attraction. Countless relic recovery expeditions have been launched to the site, and a couple even got married in a submersible on the wreck in 2001. Any dignity this site once had has been stripped by the same sort of greed and lust that drove men to build the biggest ship in the world in the first place. In its day, Titanic was the latest product of a culture whose sense of cleverness had swelled to the point where they had the nerve to create something and say, in the words of an anonymous deckhand, that “God himself could not sink this ship.” If anything, it reminds me that the same sort of smug satisfaction that we’ve somehow mastered fate through technology is just as alive and well as it was before April 14, 1912, when 50,000 tons of steel and iron began to rot away on the Atlantic seafloor as an unseen reminder of the costs of hubris.Perhaps an exhibition like the one I toured tonight is simply a reminder that time heals all wounds. I can’t imagine that it would have been a big hit had it been done in 1925, when the people who’d been on it and those who’d read about it in the papers were still alive, but now that they are all dead and gone, a new generation is curious and emotionally detached enough from the original event to find interest in it. It makes me wonder if, 90 years from now, my great-great-great grandson will be touring a 9/11 exhibition and yawning in boredom as his father explains that the steel column in front of him came from Tower Two. One irony with Titanic is that sea travelers were safer in the wake of the disaster. Ships of the time, where were getting bigger and bigger as creators designed new ways to build them, only had to carry a small amount of lifeboats. Remember, Titanic had the legal number of boats that was required – it just happened to be enough for 40 percent of the people on board. Also, radios of the time could be turned off, making a distress call pointless if no one was around to hear it. Both of these things changed in the wake of the sinking of Titanic.
The final irony? Had Titanic stayed afloat, she would have only been “the biggest ship in the world” for another month and 10 days. In May 1913, the Hamburg American Line launched the SS Imperator, which was 30 feet longer and 1,600 tons heavier than Titanic. In all likelihood, she would have ended up being sold for scrap, as her sister ship RMS Olympic was in 1934. She would have been forgotten by all except a handful of ship buffs, like yours truly, who also remember the RMS Britannic, the RMS Empress of Ireland, the SS Normandie, and many others who met their end at the end of a scrapper’s torch.
So, as I walked out of the exhibit with my replica third-class coffee mug and a photo of my family and I superimposed against the grand staircase, I felt a bit guilty, like I was an accomplice to being a disaster voyeur. On the other hand, it’s perhaps appropriate to quote a t-shirt which was popular as a form of late-90s backlash to Cameron’s blockbuster movie: “The ship sank. Get over it.”