Touching history: Exhibit features experiences on Titanic

Touching history: Exhibit features experiences on Titanic
Icebergs in the North Atlantic, where the Titanic went down in April 1912, floated in an ocean was 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Many passengers who abandoned ship perished in this frigid water. This ice wall at the “Titanic” exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum helps visitors understand the horror of the disaster. Courtesy photo

I was rescued; my husband wasn’t.That’s what we learned when we reached the end of the newest exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. Every visitor to “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” receives a replica boarding pass with the name of a real passenger who made the ill-fated voyage in 1912.I became Miss Ellen Hocking, a 21-year-old from Cornwall, England, who was traveling second class with her mother, aunt, brother, sister and two cousins, aged 3 months and 10 months. Ellen was to marry a gentleman from Schenectady, N.Y. After being rescued, she reported that sometime during the first days of the trip she thought she heard a cock crowing — a bad-luck omen in Cornish folklore.

AuGratin dishes and other china from the Titanic are displayed in the exhibit just as they were found — resting in the sand on the ocean floor. The cases in which they had been stored disintegrated long ago. Courtesy photo

My husband took the persona of Mr. Thomas William Solomon Brown, a 60-year-old from Cape Town, South Africa, who was accompanied by his second wife (20 years younger) and 15-year-old daughter. Brown was a successful hotelier whose final destination was Seattle, Wash. where his sister-in-law lived.

Traveling through the exhibit, visitors see 200 of the more than 5,500 objects recovered from the historic cruise liner and the “debris field.” There are china place settings; a hairbrush and other personal grooming items; a leather satchel still holding someone’s papers and more.

Visitors also read anecdotes that make the passengers and events real, and see pieces of the liner that now rests 2.5 miles beneath the ocean’s surface. I was surprised to learn that a coal strike in Britain forced many passengers booked on other ships to re-book on the Titanic. The ship’s promoters wanted assurances that all resources would go to the luxurious, “unsinkable” Titanic so that its maiden voyage would go off without a hitch.

Passengers who bought a first-class ticket on the Titanic paid $2,500 ($57, 200 in today’s dollars). They traveled in lavish, expensively furnished quarters and enjoyed 10-course meals. Third-class tickets cost $40 ($900) and bought a bunk in a same-sex room (families were separated) and two bathtubs for 700 passengers.

The exhibit is prompted by the 100th anniversary of the demise of the Titanic, which hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. Sunday, April 14, and sank two hours and 40 minutes later, nearly 1,000 miles northeast of New York City. It’s hard to imagine the horror of that night — people adrift in water that was 28 degrees Fahrenheit. To help visitors get a feel for this is a large slab of ice with handprints burned into the surface. Hardly anyone passed by without touching it.

Perhaps most heartbreaking Titanic tales are those of the children.

Every visitor to “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” at the San Diego Natural History Museum gets a replica of the ship’s boarding pass with the name of a real passenger. Visitors learn the fate of this passenger at the end of the exhibit. Courtesy photo

Of the 129 children aged 16 and under on board, half perished. This is partly because in those days, according to Titanic researcher Lee W. Merideth, only boys 5 years old and under were considered to be children.

When the call went out for “women and children” to board the lifeboats, this did not include boys 6 years and older.

Children also perished because many of the mothers of large families were determined that the family would not split up.

“Every one of the nine huge families that were lost had male children that fell into (the 6-to-16) age group,” Merideth writes in “Titanic Names: Titanic Centennial Edition.”

Merideth also notes that so many third-class passengers died not because of locked gates (they were not), but because many spoke neither English nor French and couldn’t understand instructions for abandoning ship.

“Titanic” runs through Sept. 9. Tickets are up to $27 and include admission to other exhibits and the museum’s 3D theater. (Note: If you have time, don’t miss the fascinating and tantalizing “All That Glitters: The Splendor and Science of Gems and Minerals” exhibit on the lower level.) It is best to purchase tickets online at sdnhm.org, or call (877) 946-7797.

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