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Titanic exhibit resurfaces history

My pass from White Star Line listed me as "Crew Member James M. Smith." My husband was "Second Class Passenger James Matthew McCrie." As two of the 2,228 individuals who sailed on Titanic’s fated voyage, their journey is poignantly captured in Titanic, The Artifact Exhibit now showing at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

While hers is a story etched in our psyche, this exhibition brings the tragedy much closer to home than the movie, Titanic, by sharing artifacts from elegant dinner ware and a broken clarinet to personal belongings including letters which, through quirk of circumstance, have been preserved.

Replicas of cabins, dining areas and the famous oak and gilded staircase help put the artifacts in context. And throughout the exhibition, displays unravel the Titanic story still further. For example, you might be surprised to learn that the grand staircase incorporated linoleum into each step: in 1911, the material was more precious than marble. Did you know that the Titanic burned more electricity than many small towns of the day? That its engines, over 45-feet tall, are the largest ever built? And that while first class passengers languished in multi-roomed $4,500 cabins (i.e.: more than $50,000 today) tickets for third class travellers were only $35?

Creating the Titanic exhibition has been no small feat. Lying at a depth of 2.5 miles, pressure around the wreck runs at three tons per square inch and darkness is blacker than ebony. The Titanic doesn’t invite visitors. The descent from the surface takes almost two hours in highly technical mini-subs. Equipped with remote-control cameras, lights and purpose-built retrieval arms, every acquisition was a painstaking journey of days – even weeks.

This is best seen in the 20-ton piece of hull, likely the only section that will ever be raised. Cracked like an eggshell and with its rivets popped, the vast chunk of one-inch thick steel is still a remarkable feat of engineering, both in its creation and in its salvage. Displayed alongside a large wall of ice, so cold that it burns your fingers within seconds, it fuels your imagination to touch that night.

The final display in the exhibit puts faces to names. It also shares the stories of individuals like John Jacob Astor, Titanic’s wealthiest passenger, and survivor Margaret Tobin Brown who "having been brined, salted and pickled in mid ocean," went on to become one of America’s most celebrated philanthropists and an activist for women’s rights. A memorial wall lets you check your boarding card to see whether you lived or died and, as you leave, a trail of personal items – spectacles, a leather boot, a pair of suspenders – bring haunting reality to this poignant tale.

And it’s a story that still may have more to share, although as nature reclaims the Titanic wreck as her own, the time to salvage any tangible memory is diminishing. Rusticles, formed by microbes and other organisms, are eating the ship away. And as they grow exponentially, so the speed of Titanic’s demise increases. Salvage operations have long been a sensitive subject, polarized between historians and collectors, and those who believe the Titanic site should rest in peace. It is a question posed eloquently through this exhibition and I, for one, feel privileged to have witnessed this fragment of history.

The Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit runs until Sept. 3, 2001 at Pacific Science Center, Seattle. Tickets are US $15, available from www.titanicseattle.com or by calling (206) 292-ARTS

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