More than 70 years after the Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean, Denverite Mary Penrose was humbled by the ship’s artifacts, on display at a Halifax, Nova Scotia, museum.
Among the items exhibited at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic that day in the early 1980s was an unencased deck chair, which had been recovered from the ocean just days after the disaster in April 1912. Rather than touch the chair, Penrose — born more than six years after the ship sank — grabbed a quarter from her purse, placed it on the chair and carefully slid the coin back into one hand. It was her respectful way of touching a piece of history.
More than 20 years later — and 95 after the Titanic sank to the depths of the ocean floor — prominent historians, researchers and the like debate how to respectfully honor those who died in the Titanic disaster. That debate has escalated since the 1985 discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, a site considered by some to be ideal for recovery and historical preservation efforts, and for others, a sacred graveyard.
“We feel it’s very important to recover the artifacts in the debris field of the Titanic,” says Cheryl Mure, director of education at Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, which today opens an exhibit of artifacts recovered from the Titanic wreck site at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Atlanta-based RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic Inc., a division of Premier Exhibitions, has exclusive rights to salvage pieces of the wreck.
“We don’t go on the ship itself,” Mure explains. “We want to recover and restore these artifacts and share the stories that these artifacts tell about Titanic’s maiden voyage. Otherwise, that story could be lost.”
According to RMS Titanic, the organization gained sole rights to recover artifacts from the Titanic wreck site through a 1994 U.S. District Court decision. The court ruled that though the wreckage lies in international waters, the U.S. Constitution grants its courts rights in cases involving international waterways, due to their roles in navigation and interstate and foreign commerce.
Since recovering the first artifacts from the sunken vessel in 1987, RMS Titanic — in collaboration with The French Oceanographic Institute and Moscow’s P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology — has brought to the surface more than 5,500 objects. Each of the groups’ seven missions to the site has taken about 16 to 20 hours to complete.
According to Mure, the group takes special precautions in recovering, protecting and conserving each item. Even so, the efforts don’t sit well with critics.
“We really don’t support the exhibit,” says Edward Kamuda, founder and president of The Titanic Historical Society Inc., in Indian Orchard, Mass. “These are materials that are brought up from a grave site, as far as we’re concerned. As one survivor put it when they brought up one of the dishes, ‘My father could have had his last meal on that plate.’”
Kamuda started the THS in 1963 after New York resident and Titanic survivor Walter Belford died. When Belford’s personal belongings got tossed in the city dump, Kamuda stepped forward to create an organization to preserve material saved by Titanic survivors.
Taking possession of items from the wreck site for preservation and exhibition, on the other hand, is disrespectful, Kamuda says. As a result of the missions made by several groups, the final resting place of the Titanic is beginning to look like graffiti, he says.
According to Mure, strict legal regulations prevent scavengers from pillaging the site. As part of the 1994 court decision that granted it sole salvaging rights, RMS Titanic agreed never to touch the ship or attempt to recover contents aboard it.
“I think that each time we go down, we see further deterioration of the ship itself,” Mure says. “The actual hull you can see when you first land on the bottom of the ocean. ... We do know that that day is coming that it will collapse onto itself.”
Whereas the current traveling RMS Titanic Inc. exhibit features artifacts recovered from the ocean floor, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic collection contains items on permanent loan from survivors and their families and those things recovered in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. In 2002, descendents of late Halifax police Officer Clarence Northover permanently loaned the museum a pair of children’s shoes, items Northover had found afloat in the ocean during recovery efforts in April and May 1912.
“A lot of the bodies ended up being buried here in Halifax,” says museum spokeswoman Jasmine Marshall. “One of the bodies was a small boy. For the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, it was so heart-wrenching to see this unclaimed child. ... (Northover) was concerned about people coming to take the clothes and personal effects, ... so he actually kept (the shoes). Just through historical records and documents, we were able to figure out that these little pair of shoes belonged to the ‘Unknown Child.’”
Marshall says the museum does not factor into any ethical debate about displaying Titanic’s artifacts. With Nova Scotia’s proximity to the ocean, its residents have long taken part in the tradition of collecting driftwood and other items that surface following shipwrecks, Marshall says.
And yet, an astonishing amount of Titanic artifacts — regardless of how they were obtained — exist in the public domain, she says.
“I think there were a number of men who realized how significant an event this was,” Marshall says.
If you go
What: “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition”
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays through Jan. 6, 2008. Allow one hour to view the exhibit.
Where: Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado \., Denver
Tickets: $10-$20 non-members; $6-$9 members
Valerie Singleton can be reached at 303-684-5319 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
8 p.m., April 2: Titanic leaves Belfast, Ireland, for Southampton, England.
Noon, April 10: Titanic embarks on its maiden voyage from Southampton to Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland.
1:30 p.m., April 11: Titanic leaves Queenstown, raising anchor for the last time.
April 14: Titanic’s crew neglects to perform lifeboat drills, despite it being required procedure.
10:55 p.m.: Surrounded by ice, another ship in the area, Carpathia, stops for the night and warns Titanic’s crew of the impending danger.
11:40 p.m.: Titanic crewman Frederick Fleet sights an iceberg, and First Officer Murdoch orders the engines stopped and reversed and the ship turned left.
Traveling at about 21 knots (26 miles per hour), Titanic’s hull strikes the iceberg. At least five of the ship’s watertight compartments flood.
On captain’s orders, Titanic’s telegraph operators send a distress signal, estimating the ship will stay afloat for two hours.
Midnight, April 15: The ship’s crew unloads lifeboats and begins evacuating women and children. The first, 65-capacity lifeboat leaves the ship 45 minutes later with only 19 passengers aboard.
1:15 a.m.: Titanic’s bow starts sinking as the last lifeboats are lowered into the water, leaving about 1,500 stranded on the ship. Titanic sinks more than an hour later.
4:10 a.m.: Carpathia reaches and rescues 705 survivors; 1,523 people are dead. Among them: 54 of the 114 children aboard.
9 p.m., April 18: Aboard Carpathia, Titanic’s survivors arrive in New York.
May 3: Crew from the ship Mackay-Bennett concludes a 7-day search around the sinking site and recovers 306 bodies. Of these, 116 are buried at sea and only 56 are identified.
1:05 a.m. Sept. 1: During a U.S.-French underwater expedition, Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean Louis Michel find the wreck of Titanic.
Summer: Scientists and researchers conduct the first dive that ends with the removal of Titanic artifacts from the bottom of the ocean floor.
“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” debuts in England.
Sources: RMS Titanic Inc. and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
It took two years to build the Titanic at a cost of $7.5 million. The vessel also carried a $5 million insurance policy. Today, it would cost $400 million to build a comparable ship.
The Titanic was nearly four city blocks long, about as wide as a four-lane highway and 11 stories tall. It weighed 46,328 tons and traveled an average of 23 to 24 knots, or 28 to 29 miles per hour.
A first-class ticket for a parlor suite on the ship cost $4,350, about $50,000 in 2007 dollars. First-class passengers also paid for on-board entertainment, including 25-cent dips in the swimming pool and 50-cent games on the squash court.
The Atlantic Daily Bulletin, Titanic’s on-board newspaper, published daily news stories, advertisements, food menus, stock prices, horse-racing results and society gossip.
A medical officer ensured that third-class passengers — many of whom were immigrants — did not have any health problems that prevented their access to the United States.
Titanic contained only two bathtubs for more than 700 third-class passengers.
Few people, including her own family, knew that Denverite Molly Brown had boarded the Titanic. She made a last-minute decision to buy a ticket after learning that her grandchild was ill in New York.
Titanic’s five kitchens boasted 60 chefs. In addition to soup, roast, pastry and vegetable cooks, the staff included a kosher cook to prepare meals for Jewish passengers.
The forward and rear sections of the boat deck were reserved for first- and second-class passengers, giving those people the best access to lifeboats.
Newspapers initially reported that all of Titanic’s passengers had survived and that the ship was being towed to land.
Had each of Titanic’s 20 lifeboats been filled to capacity, only 1,178 of the 2,228 passengers on board could have been saved.
Believing it was too cold to remain on deck as Titanic was sinking, tennis player R. Norris Williams and his father, Charles D., went to the ship’s gym to ride exercise bikes.
One month after surviving the disaster, silent-film actress Dorothy Gibson starred in “Saved from the Titanic,” wearing the dress she wore the night the ship sank.
Titanic Captain Edward Smith was due to retire from White Star Line — the ship’s parent company — in 1911, but was urged to stay on to oversee Titanic’s maiden voyage. Smith went down with the ship.
As of June 2007, there are two living Titanic survivors, both of whom were infants at the time of the disaster. One, Millvina Dean, still speaks about her family’s experiences, while the other, Barbara West, does not.