The RMS Titanic was the American dream afloat. From the Gilded-Age millionaires in first class, to the second-class entrepreneurs who hoped to follow in their footsteps, to the third-class passengers who got a taste of new-world luxury in their stately (compared with other ships of the time) accommodations, the Titanic trumpeted America’s greatness. It was the biggest and (at around $400 million in today’s prices) the most extravagant ship ever built; when it set sail from Southampton to New York on April 10, 1912, it made headline news around the world. Just four days later, there were more than 1,500 dead, and the 52-ton ocean liner lay two and a half miles under water. This time, the headlines that screamed Titanic’s name around the world were black indeed.
The enormity of the disaster and the 3-D extravagance of its big-screen depiction can make it hard to grasp how it felt to live through those few days. "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," opening November 10 at The Franklin Institute, not only showcases more than 300 objects collected from the wreckage, but it turns the experience into you-are-there theater. Each visitor receives a “boarding pass” with the name of one of the 161 real-life passengers, 19 of them from the Philadelphia area. The galleries recreate various parts of the ship—staterooms, a café, mechanical rooms, and the grand staircase made famous in James Cameron’s epic film—with recovered artifacts throughout. Only at the very end, after having the chance to touch an iceberg and feel the 38-degree air of that awful night, do “passengers” find out who survived and who perished.
Inhabiting the life of a Titanic passenger illuminates the belongings in a very intimate way, according to Steve Snyder, the Institute’s head of exhibit development. “Every time you pass by [a particular object], you are struck by something that emotionally affects you… that really brings [the passengers] into focus.” There is a china mug, a man’s bowler hat, a silver mesh evening bag, and a set of first-class hot-and-cold saltwater faucets, which vividly evokes an image of a “gentleman’s gentleman” drawing his doomed master’s bath. For Snyder himself, who wore glasses as a child, it was a pair of men’s spectacles that gave him a shiver. (Some of the artifacts were exhibited at the institute in 2004, but many are new for this show.)
There are a number of local heroes here. Streetcar magnate George Widener and railroad executive John Borland Thayer helped their wives into the lifeboats, then stayed to help scores of others before going down with the ship. (Widener’s widow went on to survive a cannibal onslaught in Africa.) Charlotte Cardeza survived to become not only a famous safari hunter but also a celebrated yachts-woman who sailed around the world twice. R. Norris Williams saw his banker father killed by a plummeting funnel and spent many hours with his legs in freezing water; doctors advised amputation, but he refused and went on to become one of America’s great tennis champions.
Other stories are curious as well as sad. Emma Bucknell, widow of the benefactor of Bucknell University, had already lost a son to an eerily similar ship sinking caused by an iceberg collision; she had told her friend, the famous “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, that she had a premonition of disaster. And Mennonite missionary Annie Clemmer Funk of Bucks County had left the girls’ school she had built in India to hurry to what she feared was her mother’s deathbed, only to perish herself. "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" runs November 10 to April 7, 2013, at The Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., 215-448-1200