Yesterday, the kids and I went to the Titanic Exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The Golfer had never heard of Titanic, and The Naturalist had a general idea that it was a ship that sank. The Sassy Princess didn’t really care what we were doing, as long as it meant she got to run around. So, on the way there, I gave a little overview of the Titanic story…but other than a few books I read when I was 10 and the cryfest that was the Titanic movie, I didn’t know much about it either.
When we arrived at the exhibit, they gave us boarding passes that gave us the name, age, and history of someone who was actually on the Titanic. They explained that at the end, we could compare our ‘names’ with a list of all the passengers to find out what happened to them/us.
The Golfer was a 41 year old man, Claus Peter Hansen, travelling with his wife and brother on his way to Wisconsin from Denmark, where he was visiting his family for the first time in 21 years. He was 3rd class.
The Naturalist was a 48 year old widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Agnes White, who was travelling in 2nd class with her two boys, and infant and a 19 year old. She sold everything she owned to raise money for tickets on the Titanic.
I was Mrs. Jane Richards Quick, a 33 year old travelling in 2nd class with my two daughters, ages 8 & 2.
I was doing fine until I read The Golfer’s ticket, and learned he was in 3rd class with his wife. Being a man in third class probably didn’t give a person good odds of surviving. And then to read how Mrs. White sold everything she had to get her family to the United States…well, the lump in my throat grew bigger. Those boarding passes got all of us emotionally invested before we stepped foot into the exhibit. As we walked through, it was easy to imagine and wonder if ‘we’ had been the owners of the artifacts displayed. Did we wear those glasses? Drink from those cups? And most of all, did we get into any of the lifeboats?
These are the different china patterns used between first, second and third class, just some of the 300 artifacts exhibited. One of the most remarkable things we saw were bottles, still full of champagne or other spirits, recovered from 12,500 feet on the bottom of the ocean.
We were able to walk through a recreated 1st class hallway and marvel at all the detailed wooden molding. Even the kids noticed and were impressed! They had recreated a 1st class cabin, as well.
But our favorite thing was meeting a man in period costume who talked all about his life. He was a 1st class Ostrich Feather importer from NYC, travelling with his wife. He assured The Golfer that even though he was in 3rd class, he was treated better than most 2nd class passengers on other ships. He also told The Golfer that after he came out of quarentine from Ellis Island, that he needed to go out to Coney Island (“Find a train, but not just any train! This one goes underground! An underground train, can you believe it?!!!” he said). “Then,” he added, “you’re going to want some ice cream. And you’re never going to believe this, but they sell ice cream that you can walk around with! They take a scoop of vanilla, and then take a waffle that looks…well, kinda like a cone…and they put the scoop IN the cone!!! And you eat it while walking! Imagine that!” By this time, The Golfer was really into it. “But what you have to make sure you do, is go on their new ride. It’s a big, tall hill…made out of wood! And by tall, I mean, it’s gotta be 60 feet high! And you get into a car, and they pull you to the top of the hill. And at the very top….THEY LET YOU GO!!! And you go screaming down the hill…and back up another one! It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever do!” It was so funny to hear him describe things that we take for granted!
As we walked further into the exhibit, the lights became dim and the sound of low humming engines filled the air. It was quite eerie. We came to a dark room that had video running of how the Titanic sank, and then a large block of an iceberg created a chill. The kids tried to see who could keep their hands on it the longest–no one managed longer than 8 seconds. Then we read that the freezing sea water was even colder than the fresh iceberg, and that most of the deaths occurred from hypothermia than drowning. We all sat in silence, imagining how cold it must have felt being totally submerged in the cold ice water, not just putting our hands on it.
We then entered a dark room with a single light emphasizing a scale model of the Titanic on the ocean floor. On the walls of the room, pictures were hung of different faces, with their stories told in a paragraph. There was the man who got on a lifeboat and set it loose, even with 1500 people still left on the Titanic. The family of 8 who all perished together. The 12 year old girl, separated from her family, who managed to get on a lifeboat and was reunited with them on the Carpathian. The kids walked around and pointed to what person they wanted to read the story of, and we ended up reading them all.
And then, as if I wasn’t feeling emotional enough, we came to the wall of names. The kids couldn’t wait to hear about if they made it or not. And, by the end of the exhibit, we all really felt like we were the people on our paper.
I found The Naturalist first. She and her infant son survived. Her 19 year old, who was her main support after being widowed, was forbidden to get into the lifeboat with them, and was lost with the ship.
I survived with both my daughters.
The Golfer. Oh, The Golfer. I found his wife on the survivor list, but without his name accompanying it. He was so nervous as I searched and searched. I finally found it, along with his brother’s name, on the “Lost” list. I told him that he had most likely placed his wife on a lifeboat, and then stayed behind so more women and children could be saved. And then I started tearing up. I had no idea it would be so emotional by the end!
As we walked out, we ran back into the Ostrich Importer from New York City. “How’d you all make out? Alright?” The Naturalist and I were quiet, not wanting to be glad we made it because we were still so sad for The Golfer. He piped up and softly said, “I died. My brother and I died. But my wife made it!”. NYC guy said, “My sweetie made it, too. I put her on the lifeboat and watched her lowered down. But hey! I bet you and I”, at this point he put his arm around The Golfer, “I bet you and I sat back on the deck, smoked a few cigars, and waved to our sweeties together.” Then he smiled and walked away.
I swear, had I not promised years ago (after the Titanic movie, actually) that I would NEVER sob uncontrollably in public again, I would have really made a spectacle of myself.
Instead of being so sad, we all talked about the stories we’d heard. The band playing till the ship sank. The men playing poker together while the water crept up. The Golfer waving to his sweetie while smoking a cigar. I said I didn’t think I could be so brave, and would probably be freaking out. The Golfer observed that maybe that’s why the people did what they did…because sometimes if you act brave even when you aren’t, it makes you feel braver than you are. I thought that was quite an observation for an 8 year old.
And so, here we are back at home, all of us very glad we saw the exhibit. If you discover that the Titanic exhibition is coming to a city near you, by all means, go! They have quite a few tours going around at the same time, all of them different. Some have the Grand Staircase recreated, and some have the promenade. It is one of the most moving exibits I’ve been too, probably because they do an amazing job of taking you out of the museum and putting you on the Titanic. And yes, it is sad. But the human element of bravery, compassion, and selflessness is what you really walk away with.