by Sherry Jones
We humans do love a good disaster. The sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, in which more than 1,500 people slipped slowly to their deaths, holds us enthralled more than 100 years after it occurred.
But the Titanic, subject of a sprawling exhibition at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), is far from your garden-variety catastrophe, says Wes Jessup, the museum’s executive director. As the popular touring show demonstrates, there’s much to unpack, on many levels.
“You see the role that class played--a major theme,” Jessup says. “There’s the story of scientific progress, of industrialization, and how the Titanic embodied so many dreams. So much enthusiasm and hope and excitement was on that ship. It was a symbol for all that—and then it went bust, and sank.”
“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” tells those stories and more, and vividly. Presenting artifacts gleaned by divers from the sunken ship, passengers’ stories, music, photographs, and special effects (including a frozen, slippery “iceberg” for viewers to touch), this show dives beyond the 1997 film’s portrayal into a truly immersive experience.
“It allows people to relive a moment in history in a vivid, meaningful way,” Jessup says.
Curated by Premier Exhibitions, which has recovered and preserved more than 5,500 artifacts from the ship, the six-month show is the longest-running in the MAC’s history, Jessup says. It’s also one of several Titanic exhibits around the country, including a permanent show in Las Vegas.
One reason for its popularity may be its emotional impact: it packs a punch.
When patrons buy a ticket, they receive a “boarding pass” with the name, age, and other information about a real-life passenger.
Here’s one: Mr. Percy Andrew Bailey, 18, was traveling along from England to Akron, Ohio, where he had landed a job as an apprentice butcher. He wrote a letter to his parents asking them to tell his grandmother he was sorry for “cheeking” her with his “wicked thoughts.” Did he survive the voyage?
In the meantime, there are others to meet—the women’s suffragist Margaret “Molly” Brown, who survived; John J. Astor IV, one of the richest men in the world, who drowned; Jack Thayer, son of a wealthy railroad executive, who would go on to write a book about his experience; the family of eight immigrants who tried to gather their clan below deck before leaving the ship—and all perished.
Class is a running theme. Directly across from a replica of a posh first-class cabin with a price tag of more than $100,000 in today’s dollars is a tiny third-class berth with four bunk beds. A first-class dinner menu offer pate de foie gras, lamb with mint sauce, roast duckling, and 17 other choices; third-class diners ate humbler yet hearty fare including roast pork, biscuits, and plum pudding.
The ship and its objects, however, are the stars of this show. The china on which dinner was served, the soap dishes passengers used, the sheet music the musicians played from—it’s all here.
And interpretive signs along with photos describe the engineering feats that made the ship one-of-a-kind, with a watertight system hyped as “unsinkable.”
At the end, a list of passengers reveals their fates. Percy Andrew Bailey, 18, had booked second-class, but succumbed with 1,500 others to death, the great equalizer.
“This is all about understanding what life was like,” Jessup says. “You can read about it—but here, you can see the dishes people were eating off of, the perfume bottles. It makes the experience more immediate, and brings history to life more vividly.”
If you go
Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit runs through May 20 in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture,
2316 W. 1st Ave., Spokane
$16 for ages 65 and up,
$10 for ages 6-17
$13 college students with ID
Free for children 5 and under.
“A Night to Remember,” a Spokane MAC gala, will feature a cocktail hour, music, and the 10-course first-class Titanic meal, Saturday, April 14 in the Davenport Hotel’s Palm Court. $150.
“Dive the Titanic”, a video journey to the sunken ship featuring Spokane resident Guy Zajonc, is 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, March 8, $10.
Third Class Titanic Bash includes Irish music, dancing, period and steampunk costumes, and more, Friday, March 16, 6:30-10 p.m., $20.
From Wreck Site to Exhibition with Premier Exhibitions creative director Mark Lach, 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, April 12, $10.
Sherry Jones is a freelance writer living in Spokane, WA. Find her online at www.hedonista.com.