New program has exciting 2013 schedule
By BETH ALTENA
No artifacts have been removed from the actual ship, which is considered at tomb. Many of the dead included the staff aboard the Titanic, who worked to save passenger lives during the sinking. The cork lifejackets on board, which many people wore as they left the sinking Titanic, was actually a hard material not unlike wood and had the unfortunate tendency to pop upward if the wearer jumped into water, hitting the wearer in the head and causing unconsciousness followed by drowning.
These are among the facts students at Rockford Community Education’s Community College learned Monday, February 18. The second in the series for 2013 for the new program took place at the Rockford Community Cabin at noon and included a lunch provided by the Corner Bar.
Presenter Rob Schuitema, who is the Grand Rapids Museum Education Manager, spoke about the Titanic exhibit which is currently on display. “The museum is a true collaboration, from the set-up of displays to funding, to collections and the procurement of artifacts to create the stories you learn about,” he stated. “The Titanic is a fascinating story.”
Schuitema said the Titanic display was planned to come to the museum in 2012 as part of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, but the Detroit Museum garnered that honor. He also noted that the Grand Rapids Museum Display is one of eight world-wide offered in different locations. The displays are matched to venues by the size available and the Titanic exhibit at GR is one designed to fit into the 8,000 square feet the GRM has available for such exhibits.
“Four semis came in on a Sunday, and with our crew and the company’s crew we created the exhibit in about four days,” said Schuitema. He said the same company that owns Bodies Revealed—the traveling exhibit offered last year at the museum—owns the Titanic shipwreck rights.
Since opening on February 9, the exhibit has been sold out on weekends. Tickets are by appointment, not on a walk-in basis, so that visitors are limited to an appropriate number at a time. Schuitema said he is very impressed with the exhibit and is confident visitors of all ages and backgrounds will appreciate the experience.
“It is not overwhelming, it is elegant, really,” he said. “It really creates the illusion that you are on this ship. You walk through and the story changes.” He said the space that illustrates what it was like to be on the Titanic that night is physically cooler than the previous section of the exhibit, is darker and uses lighting in a different way. “It is laid out beautifully.”
The display is held on the heels of the 100th anniversary and may be viewers’ last chance to view it, as the rights to the ship and all artifacts are up for sale. “We may be the last museum to have this exhibit,” he stated. Among requirements for the sale of the rights and artifacts are that they remain under the ownership of one entity and be available to the public for viewing. “That is a big undertaking. This display may go into retirement.”
Schuitema said the display is divided into different galleries and at the beginning each visitor is given a replica boarding pass identically to those given to real passengers of the Titanic. Each bears the name of a real person who was on the ship during its fateful maiden voyage, adult or children and first class through third. At the end of the exhibit museum visitors may learn the fate of the holder of their ticket—whether they were one of the 1,500 who lost their lives that night of the 2,300 people aboard the ship.
Schuitema said the people who chose to be passengers on the Titanic—the “unsinkable” ship that was recognized as the most luxurious and sophisticated in the world—were of two types. “They were either high society who wanted to be part of history or they were immigrants going to New York to start a new life,” he stated.
“The Titanic was the newest design and construction and was going to be the crown jewel of the shipping company.” Compared to other ships of its day, it dwarfed and overwhelmed. It was 882.5 feet long, the length of twenty-two school buses end to end. By comparison, the ship that came to rescue that night was the length of 14 school buses at 500-plus feet.
The Titanic was 92.5 feet wide and extremely fast at 21 to 24 knots. “It was big and it was fast. There are a lot of theories why this accident happened. Was it arrogance? Was it not paying attention? Was there some other reason? Ships going down was not a new story. Schuitema said the Titanic’s captain had determined he wanted to retire and that this was to be his final voyage. That night at dinner he regaled those at the table with stories he’d heard from his career. Schuitema said this part of the story is an eerie and ominous foreshadowing of what happened later that night.
Life aboard the ship was the height of elegance for those traveling first class. In third class it was more crowded, with strangers sharing a room but even in third class the quality was better than any other such voyage in the world.
Schuitema said visitors to the exhibit want to know if the displays are real, and most are not. “Anything real is under glass,” he stated. It is rare and difficult to retrieve shipwreck artifacts and those saved need careful tending to keep them from deterioration. This does not detract from the experience, he said.
“The iceberg replica is cold to the touch and if you put your hand on it, you’ll leave a handprint,” he said. He said such interactive displays would not be possible with real artifacts, making the exhibit much more effective than real artifacts would allow.
“I can’t imaging what it would be like to be on that magnificent ship that night and at midnight feel that shudder and then life changes forever,” he shared. The downing of the Titanic would not have happened without a “perfect storm” of instances that all combined together to seal the ship’s fate. It was going faster than any other ship would have been able to travel. It was the captain’s final voyage, it was unseasonably cold, allowing icebergs where they usually weren’t. The water temperature was literally colder than freezing. Other ships were unable to reach the Titanic very quickly, in part because of the danger they would have incurred by going too fast in the icy water.
The impact took place at 12:35 a.m. just into the start of April 15. The Titanic radioed that it was in trouble, and the Carpethia, 58 miles away, began a detour to offer help. It took that second ship over three hours to make the journey. By the time the Carpethia arrived, it was too late for over half the souls aboard the Titanic. One hundred years later, no one knows why the “unsinkable ship” sank.
“It was a race Mother Nature was winning,” said Schuitema. “Was the ship sound? Was it too weighted down? Those are ongoing questions. Was it going too fast for conditions? It was one of those really foggy nights, was it that they couldn’t see or were they over confident because of the size of the ship?”
A higher percentage of third class passengers were among those lost—a high proportion of Irish immigrants who wanted a new life in America. After the collision, the power went out, the elevators weren’t working. Third class quarters were lower than first and second—but higher than those of workers on the ship. Also, first and second class received word of the danger and need to get off the ship sooner than others. Titanic crew assisted those first and second class patrons to board lifeboats—often at the cost of their own lives as lifeboats reached capacity and ran out.
“There were as many lifeboats as required by law,” Schuitema noted. But they were not optimally used or filled as patrons panicked and raced to escape the tipping ship, which would pull lifeboats down with it to the bottom. Schuitema shared the words of one survivor, a haunting statement: “I’ll never forget the image as the ship finally tipped and people were falling off.”
The discovery gallery of the exhibit shows the events when the Titanic’s wreckage was discovered in 1985. Submersibles were used to retrieve artifacts from the ocean floor were they rested since falling from the sinking vessel. The debris field has a two-mile radius and is where all artifacts have come from since the ship itself is considered a tomb and is protected.
“The most intact items are those that were in leather, such as letters in a leather suitcase… When bringing them up preservation has to start immediately.” Preservation includes leaching the salts out of items and injection with a water-soluble wax to avoid drying out. Items such as paper are freeze dried. “The recovery and preservation process is fascinating in itself.”
The exhibit ends in the Memorial Gallery which lists the 2,200 names of the lost and saved. Schuitema said that exhibit explains some of the problems with surviving the Titanic’s sinking, including the lifejackets of the time, made with cork, which sounds soft but is really quite hard, like wood.
Later outlawed, the cork lifejackets’ buoyancy tended to cause the vests to pop upward when meeting water, which also tended to cause the cork to strike the wearer in the jaw or head. If the blow made the wearer lose consciousness, the construction of the vest allowed drowning to result.
In the Memorial Gallery the stories of the passengers and crew of the Titanic are exhibited, including the items they brought on ship with them, from the elite first class on vacation to the immigrants who were taking all they would have for their new life.
The exhibit is only on display through July 7. Find out more by visiting grmuseum.org or call 1-800-585-3737.
Rockford Community Education continues Community Cabin College monthly in 2013. The next class is March 18 with the legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the story of the mysterious loss of the Lake Superior ship and the crew of 29 men on November 10, 1975. For more information about the College, call (616) 863-6322.