When the Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, it would sail off into the pages of history—but not quite the way its makers would have intended. Ironically, the luxury liner hailed as “unsinkable” did sink after hitting an iceberg, plunging to the depths of the ocean and claiming the lives of over two thousand passengers.
One hundred years later, the ship’s tragic tale continues to fascinate the public through commemorative exhibits being held in various museums around the world and the release of a 3D version of the blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
At the Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum in Singapore, the Titanic The Artifact Exhibition has been attracting thousands of visitors since it opened last October and continues to do so as it draws to a close on April 29—exactly the same month as when the ship began its journey.
True to its tag of “Real Objects, Real Stories,” the exhibition conveys a feeling of being there as it happened through its presentation of artifacts salvaged from the sunken ship and providing the context behind these items.
But what lends a personal touch is being handed, upon entry, a boarding pass of an actual passenger aboard the Titanic. This writer received the pass of one Eva Georgette Light, wife to Bertram Frank Dean, of Devon, England. The couple was hoping to settle in Wichita, Kansas together with their two young kids.
The visitor is caught in a whirl of excitement upon entering the Construction Gallery where the vision for the luxury ship Titanic is laid out. Film footage and photographs of the ship being built, tidbits about how the rivets were put in place on the massive structure, and an intricate scale model of the vessel contribute to that sense of thrill that something significant was being put together.
A recreation of iconic venues within the ship calls to mind scenes from the Titanic movie, such as in the Grand Staircase where the characters of Rose and Jack meet in formal wear before making their way to the dinner table. The sight of the staircase with its wood paneling, the skylight with ornate wrought ironwork and the cherub statue at the bottom is normally met with gasps of wonder that visitors willingly go up the steps upon the urging of an exhibit staffmember to have their pictures taken. (Photos may be picked up—for a fee, but of course—upon exit.)
For this writer, the reproduction of the ship’s promenade is one of the most effective in inducing that sense of awe. One can stand by the railing, gaze at the starlit sky, see gentle waves below and feel like being transported to a night on the Titanic. The mirrors on both ends of this section give the illusion of a lengthy promenade where one can amble about and then sit on a bench just like how first-class passengers may have done all those years ago.
Seeing the artifacts, realizing that these were once used by the ship’s staff and travelers, makes the experience at once real but surreal. The side-by-side placement of plates and utensils for the first-class and second-class sections shows the disparity of goods and services for the haves and the have-nots (or at least those who have lesser means). Recovered bills and coins reflect the international gathering that was on the Titanic. The indiscretions of some of the rich are revealed in passenger forms that indicate names of companions other than their wives.
A steward’s uniform still bearing its owner’s name, postcards with handwritten messages, bottles of sample perfume that still gave off scent when recovered many decades later—these and a trove of other artifacts tell the stories of lives shattered and disrupted. There is a poignancy in reading the accounts, like that of wife of the co-owner of Macy’s department store who refused to get on a lifeboat, preferring to stay on board with her husband. They both perished. Time and again, one is reminded of the nature of fate and how incomprehensible it can be. There is Captain Edward John Smith who promised his family he would retire after sailing on the Titanic. There are stories of passengers who wouldn’t have been aboard at all had it not been for a coal strike that forced them to transfer to the Titanic from the ship they were originally booked on.
There is a sense of foreboding at the Iceberg Gallery, where, enveloped in the dark surroundings, one learns of the exact moment when calamity struck. A clip from a documentary by the Discovery Channel shows how, after hitting the iceberg, the Titanic would be cut open in places, eventually break up and then sink. For a literally chilling effect, there is a huge chunk of ice that guests can touch, so that they can appreciate more just how cold the North Atlantic was that fateful night.
In the end, what makes the sinking of the Titanic so tragic is the realization that it stemmed from a combination of hubris and human folly, that in turn, led to a series of unfortunate events. One can’t help but think of a different outcome for the ship had there not been a rush to meet the planned launch date. That given more time, the sufficient number of lifeboats would have been installed, enough to have saved more lives. That if there wasn’t all the need to hurry, then the lookouts assigned that night in the crow’s nest might not have forgotten to bring their telescope and then maybe, just maybe, they would have seen the iceberg sooner and the Titanic could have avoided it altogether.
Oh, all the what ifs and what could-have-beens!
That feeling boils to the surface at the Memorial Gallery where one finally learns the fate of the passenger named in the boarding pass given at the start of the exhibit. Eva Georgette Light Dean did survive, as did her one-year-old son Bertram and nine-week-old daughter Milvina. Alas, her husband Bertram Frank Dean, who made sure they got on the lifeboat, did not.
A century later, in the exhibit retelling one of the biggest maritime disasters in history, a tangible connection is formed with those aboard the ill-fated ship. In learning about the Titanic and the people who were on it, more than anything, one is reminded of just how fragile and oh so fleeting life can be.