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April is the Cruellest Month... Charles visits The Titanic exhibition at 02, London / 6 August 2011

photo of the titanic

The Titanic © Courtesy Titanic London

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When Colleen suggested visiting the Titanic exhibition in London I felt uneasy about the idea despite having an interest in the period and of ships and the sea. I don’t think I would have gone had it been for her.

The exhibition is currently being staged at the O2 Centre in North Greenwich. The entrance price is in keeping with White Star Line pricing policy of the period at £15.00 a head. One ingenious touch was to present visitors with a facsimile boarding pass in the name of one of a genuine passenger. Colleen had a first class docket for Mrs Isadore Straus  (nee Rosalie Ida Blun) an elderly Jewish lady who chose to stay at her husband’s sides and so perished with the ship. Mine was a second class reservation in the name of Frederick James Blanfield, a mining engineer.

The exhibition is more tasteful and well thought out, than I had expected. Presentation is centred around various artefacts recovered from the wreck site, two and a half miles below the Atlantic.

There are a series of galleries starting with the passenger accommodation and a reconstruction of a luxurious first class cabin. This was not however the top of the range £600.00.00* suite, which would have set one back some £33,000 today. There is also a third class cabin in steerage with its quadruple bunks and White Star company blankets with their distinctive pennant logo. For the time this was luxury accommodation.  Steerage cost some £7.00.00, approximately £500 now.

*I’ve given prices, as they would have been rendered in then predecimal monetary system that prevailed for a thousand or so years up until February 1971.

Other galleries dealt with the crew, catering and culinary arrangements and the bridge with a vista of not particularly convincing stars. The engine room has a mock up of one of the great furnaces and one of the watertight doors intersected the bulkheads, the very ones that failed to reach high enough to save the ship.

Real attractions of the exhibition are the artefacts from the tragic ship itself. These include personal articles and clothing from passengers and crew, crockery, tools, letter, postcard, jewellery and keepsakes.  The one piece I remembered was a coin of Constantine I from the 4th century AD that had been made into a pendant and gone down with the ship.

In the accompanying catalogue are pictures of artefacts recovered from the wireless room. The then ultra-novel Marconi set was seen as much as a social amenity for passengers than an essential communications tool. Many ice reports from ships hove to for the night, failed to reach the bridge and lay forever under mounds of gossip.

There are fascinating pieces of equipment such as the ship's telegraph, for communication with the engine room, the steam of the wheel, both of which were recovered from the wreckage of the bridge. There are light fittings, telephones and even a piece of  Titanic’s hull, which you are able to touch.

Ice
There is even an iceberg. You dismiss this as fibreglass as did I until Colleen placed a cold hand on the back of my neck having discovered it was real. A genuine touch but as the caption says, the real berg would have been a lot colder.

The Olympic class liners were a thoroughly bad design with an underwater configuration vastly inferior to their older rivals, Cunard’s Mauritania class.
This made the Olympics pigs to handle at sea. Titanic herself was very nearly involved in a collision with another liner before she ever set sail.

Titanic’s elder sister Olympic, the only one of the three to enjoy a career on the Atlantic run, sank three ships in her twenty-year life, two of them unintentionally.
Britannic, the largest and last of the three never entered service at all being commissioned as a hospital ship and mined in the Mediterranean. 

Exit through the Gift Shop
Of course there’s a shop with overpriced products in it. For some reason everything seemed to be priced in multiples of eight. I bought a White Star Company eggcup and Colleen, bless her, bought me a 3rd class dinner plate. She also bought herself a DVD which when she attempted to play it configured for US regional streaming. It is narrated by Leonard Nimoy, which should have told her something.

A thoroughly good and well-presented exhibition but I felt a little ghoulish pouring over such fragments of calamity. When I was very small my aunt, who was a Victorian and who would have been twenty-two when Titanic foundered, would sing me to sleep and one of the songs she sand was Closer thy God to Thee.

I am something of an empath and seem to have taken some her past life experience as part of my own. Consequently I’ve had the feeling of being projected exactly a hundred years into the future so that I am here merely as a bemused observer.

Thus whilst everyone else experiences this event as something that happened ninety nine years ago, for me it is something due to occur next April!

Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition is on show at O2 until 1 September 2011
Go to http://www.titaniclondon.co.uk/ for more details

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