For those, like me, who’ve wondered what it would have been like to be on board the RMS Titanic as she set sail on her ill-fated maiden voyage across the Atlantic, there is now a chance in Singapore to step right on board – at the TITANIC: THE ARTIFACT EXHIBITION which is currently on at the ArtScience Museum. I did just that over the weekend, having received an invitation from the kind folks of the museum for a guided tour, one which despite just arriving back jet-lagged from a trip to Europe, I couldn’t pass up on.
Stepping through the entrance to the exhibition at the B2 level of the museum, visitors are each provided with a boarding pass, each with the name of an actual passenger, personal information, as well as the class in which the passenger was travelling on. It is through the entrance that the visitor is greeted by the glorious bow of the ship which provides the backdrop for a photograph opportunity with ‘Captain Smith’. It is through the next part of the exhibition that I took not just a step into the world that might have existed on board what was, a century ago, the world’s largest passenger liner, but also on board for a voyage of discovery which included a step into the drawing office, shopfloors and slipway of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast at which the mammoth liner was conceived, designed and built.
One of the wonderful touches that the exhibition provides is an insight into the people behind the building of the Titanic, as well as some of the principal characters on board the vessel during the voyage. At the Construction Gallery, we learn of the conditions that existed that motivated the design of such a huge passenger liner – designed so as to compete against rival Cunard Line’s superliners Lusitania and Mauretania. The Titanic was the second of three in its class, which included the Olympic and Britannic (the Britannic was converted into a Hospital Ship by the Royal Navy and never saw service in its intended role). We are introduced to Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff and Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of White Star Line, as well as to the Head Designer and General Manager, Alexander Carlisle, who led the design team, whom we were to learn had his heart broken by the tragedy – something that I could identify with having spent most of my own career in the drawing office of a shipyard.
On the building berth, the difficult working environment and conditions that the shipyard workers endured are brought to light – we learn of the four-men teams responsible for driving the 3 million rivets – the glue that holds the steel plates together in days that preceded the advent of welding as a means to connect steel, who worked from the break of day to late in the evening with only half an hour’s break for lunch.
The next section of the exhibition is where one steps on board, through doors and a passageway that the first class passenger would have passed through – all recreated to allow a feel of life onboard from the luxury and opulence that the well-heeled enjoyed to the conditions faced by the thrid class passengers made up mainly of immigrants seeking a passage to the New World, as well as that in the bolier room. The highlight of the recreated spaces would be the Verandah Café and perhaps the Promenade where one could lean over the bulwark and stare into the night sky, as well as the Grand Staircase.
Next, in the Iceberg Gallery, visitors can interact with an Iceberg Wall which allows visitors to experience the freezing temperatures on that passengers would have encountered on the frigid night in the North Atlantic when the Titanic sank, by putting their palms on the frozen wall.
The main draw of the exhibition, which has been visited by more than 25 million people over 15 years worldwide, is of course the artifacts recovered from the wreck site. A total of 275 are on display, including 14 that have not previously been exhibited, from the 5,550 objects that have so far been recovered from the wreck. What perhaps catches the attention and provokes a deep sense of tragedy are personal objects that have been recovered which are the only living memories of lives that may have been lost on the fateful night. These include the marbles of a child and a pair of spectacles.
At the end of the exhibition, a Memorial Wall confronts the visitor. Lists of names or survivors and those who sadly perished – passengers categorised by the class they travelled in, as well as that of the crew are displayed and it is here where one can match the names on the boarding passes given at the entrance to the names on the wall to discover the fate of their passenger. Sadly the name of the passenger that was on the pass that I was holding was on the list of those who died. There is also uniquely at this edition of the exhibition, a Singapore 1912 gallery which showcases how news of the tragedy reached Singapore and with photographs of what Singapore would have been like at the time of the sinking.
There was also a treat that awaited the participants of the guided visit in the form of a meet-up with ‘Captain Smith’, who shared not just his experiences playing the role for RMS Titanic Inc for the exhibition, but also of the opportunity he had going on a dive in the confines of a submersible, two and a half miles underwater to wreck site. One of the things that he shared that caught my eye was the effect the pressure at that depth had on a styrofoam cup – out of ‘Captain Smith’s’ pocket came a tiny cup with the silhouette of the Titanic drawn on it which had as he put it, ‘had its air sucked out of it’ – reduced to a small fraction of its original size, that was carried on the pressure side of the submersible. Amazing – as was the overall experience of the exhibition which is well worth visiting. The exhibition will be held at the ArtScience Musuem until the 29th of April and will mark the 100th Anniversry of the tragedy in April 2012.
Information on the TITANIC: THE ARTIFACT EXHIBITION including ticket prices and opening hours can be found at http://titanic.sg/.