Expo Review: Titanic Artifact Exhibition, Cape Town – Part 1

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Photo Credit: Titanic Expo SA

A hundred-and-four years after the tragic sinking of the Titanic, the wonderful, internationally-acclaimed ‘Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition’ finally graced S.A. shores when it opened at the V&A’s Watershed (Jubilee Hall) on November 22nd, 2015. Originally set to run until March 6th, the Titanic Expo has been extended until March 13th due to its immense popularity among tourists and locals alike, and when you visit and experience it first-hand, it is incredibly easy to understand the awe and popularity behind this amazing, intensely historical expo.

As a resident of Cape Town and someone who has personally been captivated by this tragic tale ever since I first saw James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) movie as a child, I knew this was something I had to see and write about after I heard about it in last November.

So, I approached the Titanic Expo SA organisers and asked if it would be possible for me to do a review of this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition and, to my immense relief and gratitude, earlier this month, Exibition Director, Marius Basson of SA Holding Company, Manic Global, kindly added me to the guest list. Because of this, I was able to attend the Expo with one of my closest friends and fellow Journalism classmates, Aaqeelah, and (for a change) treat her to an experience, which we were both incredibly excited about long before it became a reality. 🙂

So you can imagine our mounting excitement as we set off from campus on Monday to see whether or not we would survive the Titanic, so to speak. We made our way to the V&A Waterfront and after a short walk past Noble Square, the huge Titanic Expo signage and welcoming staff guided us to the thrilling Expo, which rests inside the purposefully darkened recesses of the Watershed.

 

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After taking some photos, we went to the ticket desk. I purchased Aaqeelah’s online through Webtickets (www.webtickets.co.za) and, as a Pick n Pay Smart Shopper, I received a discount when I booked online. It’s a really great process, which makes things much simpler and easier). With the discount, I paid R75 for her student ticket.

 

 

 

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Ticket Prices run as follows:

  • Over 18s (Adults) = R135
  • Children (5-17 years) = R85
  • Students and Pensioners = R90
  • Family Package for 4 = R320 (R80 p/p)

School packages

  • 20-99 learners = R70 p/p
  • 100-149 learners = R65 p/p
  • 150-199 learners = R60 p/p
  • 200+ learners = R50 p/p
  • Titanic and Aquarium Combo Special = R80 p/p (Cape Town only)

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We were immediately handed over our White Star Line ‘Boarding Pass’, which, thanks to RMS Titanic, Inc., have been creatively and accurately based on the original tickets.

Titanic Expo Boarding Passes
Photo Credit: Titanic Artifact Exhibition

Though, this time there’s a catch: they reveal passenger facts. For example, I was Mrs Helen Dickinson (19), newly-wedded wife of H. Bishop and owner of small dog, Freu Freu. Additionally, ‘I’ was pregnant and brought jewellery worth over $10,000 onto the Titanic when I climbed aboard her at Cherbourg, France. The Expo assistant told us that, at the end of the exhibition, we could see whether we had survived the Titanic, which is both a little fascinating and strangely foreboding.

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Not long after at 12:00 p.m. (the Expo runs from 09:00 a.m. to 19:00 p.m. daily; with guided tours (R50 for 1 person; R40 p/p for 4-9 people and R30 p/p for 10-20 people) taking place every hour from 10:30 a.m. onwards) we passed down the red carpet and through the velvet curtains and entered the Expo to the soundtrack of Celine Dion’s classic ‘My Heart Will Go On‘ song, which we recognised from the movie, along with other music that I imagine could have been played by the Titanic’s noble band, who so famously and tragically played on to calm everyone else as the ship went down.

In other instances, musical pieces, such as: ‘The Wreck of the Titanic‘, were later composed in memory of this ill-fated ‘ship of dreams’. A music book lies open on a piano as you immediately enter the first display area where a large screen shows the Expo’s global stops and some black-and-white photos from the Titanic’s construction days.

Before I proceed any further, I must clearly state that NO photography of any kind (including cellphone photography), nor cellphone use is permitted once you are inside the Exhibition itself. (Additionally, no eating, smoking or drinking is allowed inside.)

These are ancient historical artifacts, which have been carefully preserved and presented for public viewing, so please, give due respect, not just to these wondrous pieces of history – but also to the dead, as, naturally, some of these are inherently personal belongings recovered from the wreck or donated years later by survivors or relatives.

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Now, I’m not usually one for ‘naming and shaming’ but I was getting really fed-up and indignant after we noticed several people pulling out their cellphones and taking snaps with their flashes on, never mind the fact that the Expo is under constant camera surveillance, but there is signage just before you enter (near the audio guides (R30 p/p), catalogues with posters (R120) and combo (R130) outside the main entrance) and it is made clear enough that photography, as well as touching, are not allowed. I was quite taken aback when a man, who saw me taking notes in my notebook (we took longer in the Expo because of this), innocently said, “Just use your cellphone to take photos, it’s easier.” Easier, maybe but permitted? Alas, no.

In the first section, as you navigate around the black dividers, you are instantly and chillingly reminded of the tragic deaths of 1,503 of the 2,206 passengers from across the globe (including South Africans as you will later learn) on April 14th, 1912 when this engineering marvel – with its unrivalled luxury and leisure that made her a legend long before she set sail from Southampton for New York on April 10th, 1912 on her first and last journey – struck that perilous iceberg and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some 590 km south-east of Newfoundland, Canada.

Here, you can also read about the Exhibition’s featured artifacts, which total over 140 in number and include a range of personal belongings, toiletry items, crockery, old bottles, pots and ship parts such as some of the 1200 tons’ worth of rivets. A board states: “…Respectfully recovered and painstakingly conserved, these objects more than any word or image tell the story of R.M.S. Titanic and of her 2228 passengers and crew whose lives she changed forever.”

And therein lies the full impact of this amazing exhibit: everything you see from there on in, starting with the ship’s detailed interior and exterior plans right up to the sometimes incredibly preserved artifacts on display (especially near the end of this Expo), really transport you back in time to 1907 when this ship, the Royal Mail Streamer (R.M.S.) Titanic, along with the White Star Line’s other luxury liner, Olympic, was dreamed up by J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, and Lord James Pirrie, partner in Belfast shipbuilding firm, Harland & Wolff, which would later oversee the construction (start date: 31st May, 1909) of this colossal ocean liner.

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Photo Credit: Titanic Artifact Exhibition

We first looked at the photos of the detailed plans, which amounted to thousands in 1908, of the ship’s design and engine. The Titanic was, at that time, not only considered “the safest ship ever built” but also the most luxurious (no expense was spared and Manager Director, Thomas Andrews, Jr. wanted “a balance between strength and beauty”) and the largest moving object made by human hands. Weighing in at a staggering 46,328 tons, the ‘triple screw’ R.M.S. Titanic was 269.1 m in length and 92.6 ft in breadth. To give you an idea, London’s Tower Bridge is apparently the same length and height as she was and the Empire State Building is as tall as the Titanic was long.

It was thus unsurprising to read how, starting in 1909, it took more than 10,000 men nearly three years just to construct the Ship’s hull and internal structure and that they needed twenty horses to transport her main anchor. Then there were her three enormous propellers (and I mean seriously big… the photo of them alone is a little frightening), two of which were tri-blade wing propellers weighing 38 tons each and measuring 23 ft, whilst the last was a 4-blade centre propeller of 16 ft and 22 tons.

What’s more, we learn how the Titanic’s “innovative design included a system of 15 watertight bulkheads and remote controlled doors to contain flooding in the event of a collision,” and that, as a result, a quote published in Shipbuilder magazine in 1911, hailed the ship as “practically unsinkable.”

We marvelled at the first of the secure glass display cabinets, which tenderly hold plugs (with 20-amp fuses) and what remains of old tools, which no doubt belonged to some of the passengers, especially as many of the second- and third-class were skilled labourers, shoemakers, tinsmiths and carpenters heading for the Land of Opportunity.

It was a small touch but I liked the old replica sacks, thick coils of rope, crates and barrels, which serve as a backdrop to the displays and informative posters. If you look close enough, you will even see that some of these were ‘meant for delivery in New York’. It’s one of many examples of the great attention to detail and accuracy maintained by the Titanic Exhibition’s creators.

After that, you pass on to the Launch Day when a crowd of more than 10,000 people gathered to see the Titanic (though only the exterior was complete at that point and full completion would require another ten months for the interior, including the engine boilers and aforementioned propellers) released from her dry dock, which was greased with 22 tons of tallow and soap, to the firing of a red rocket at 12:13 p.m. on May 31st, 1911.

Then, it is onto the Day of Departure on Wednesday April 10th, 1912 when she set sail at 12:00 p.m. from Southampton, England for New York (though she made stops at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland along the way) with her famous Captain, Edward J. Smith at the helm.

I read with a sinking heart about that charismatic naval man, who rose to prominence and became the White Star Fleet’s Commodore in 1904 and who was so adored by some people that they would only sail on ships under his command. We learned how he had promised his wife and daughter that he would retire after the Titanic’s maiden voyage and how he famously said of the Titanic: “I could not conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel…” Sadly, he, like so many people, was sorely mistaken about this noble ship, which was boldly named after titans, the giants of Greek mythology.

Nearby, the first really personal effects can be seen in the form of an inkwell and postcard(s), which once belonged to Howard Irwin, George Thorne Rosenshine and Edgar Andrews, a scholar who, like so many others, was never even meant to be on the Titanic in the first place. However, due to a strike, coal was in short supply and the White Star Line was forced to cancel Oceanic and Adriatic travel and transfer many of her passengers (and coal resources) over to the Titanic. For me, learning this was perhaps the most heartrending new discovery I made through the Expo’s excellent information and survivor’s accounts, especially as so many people literally ended up on the Titanic at the last minute when they should never have been on it to begin with.

I could not believe it when we saw one of the ship’s actual portholes and when researching afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was indeed one of the four recovered from the ship’s wreckage decades later. I was also amused to learn that stewards had to assist passengers in opening these difficult portholes, as, if you were not careful, you could end up with a broken finger, referred to as “porthole thumb”, according to the little informative plague placed alongside the porthole.

After that, it’s all about the ship’s decks and interior and cleverly, the backdrop changes to old suitcases and sacks displayed outside.

From this point onwards, my disgust at the class inequality and appalling affluence of this ship grew as we discovered first that the Promenade Deck (500 ft either side) was reserved exclusively for First-Class passengers. Aside from possessing elegant common rooms like the Reading Room (ladies only), Verandah Café, Smoking Room (men only) and First-Class Lounge, the Titanic also had a gymnasium (complete with a pool and Turkish baths) and was in every way, palatial and  more a floating hotel than a ship.

Her interior, for example, was inspired by London’s famous Ritz Hotel. This is immediately apparent when you look at the real-life first-class bedroom, which has been set up behind a spacious, cordoned off area a few metres on, complete with immaculate wooden furniture and a stunning silk bed.

Before you get there, however, you can see some of the U.S. currency from that era, which includes some coins (the majority of which were recovered in a Gladstone bag) and the “large sized U.S. Note.”

We were particularly startled to discover a Native American chief on the cover of one note, referred to as ‘The Chief.’ Enter, Sioux Chief, Running Antelope, the only Native American to ever grace U.S. Currency. This is the added wonder of the Expo, as it quickly becomes apparent that even after all these long years, this ship – which was in every way a global icon both then and now – still has so much to teach us about world history and the early 1900s.

From then, the Expo definitely becomes more human and real as the artifacts become deeply personal again, as you discover a mix of toiletries (shaving brushes, John Gosnell and Co. Ltd. Cherry Toothpaste jar, hand mirrors and toothbrushes) and marvel at some things like the Daggett and Ramsdell (a brand name to this day) cold cream that survived eighty years at the bottom of the sea. It was made from white mineral oil instead of vegetable oil and I personally wondered if this didn’t somehow ensure it’s preservation all those long years underwater.

Again, I learned more about the lavishness of First-Class, which could take 750 passengers. First-Class rooms each had their own bathtub with hot and cold running water… this doesn’t seem too bad until you get further on and read about the conditions of Third-Class (otherwise referred to as ‘Steerage’) and its bathing, for then the vast class distinction between Third-Class and the other two becomes frighteningly apparent.

Additionally, some first-class rooms on B-Deck (or Bridge Deck) even had their own private promenades but that’s not the worst of it, not by far.

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The ticket prices will surely blow your mind once you do the maths (especially with today’s Rand-Dollar exchange rate)… A first-class ticket cost $2,500 dollars then, which would be $57,200 today, whereas the two most expensive B Deck tickets cost $4,300. Today, that would be $103,000 dollars so well over R1 million. (Some extras, like gymnasium use or dining at the A La Carte restaurant, were not even included in the ticket prices).

Second-Class, which could take 394 passengers, wasn’t too hard done by when compared to First-Class and generally they dined and slept almost as well. A Second-Class ticket would have cost about $1,750 in 1912.

Whilst for Third-Class – which, for Titanic passengers, was better than it would have been on any other ocean liner back then – ticket prices were $40 ($900 today).

In that section of the Expo, you can see photos of the Captain and main S.S. Officers and the grand staircase, which was considered one of the Titanic’s “most spectacular features”, and which extended between Boat Deck (Captain’s Bridge) and Saloon Deck (Deck D).

The Titanic pulled out all the stops and even had expert wainstaff from the famous London Luigi Gatti Restaurant and offered the finest food, service and décor. For example, the Verandah Café had green trellises running along interwoven wood and a country mansion feel to it.

When I doubled back, after briefly stepping behind a divider to watch the soundless clip (from the Titanic scene in which Jack and Rose are in the icy water), I noticed the Fleur-de-Lis nearby in one of the display cabinets. Apparently, First-Class suites used either Empire or Regency style.

It is also here that you can see the following: a gold link necklace, calling cards (our version of modern-day business cards) and a beautiful silver jewellery box with the initials ‘A.F.C.’ engraved on it. This may have belonged to two possible ladies, one of whom was Amy Jacobsohn, whose husband was South African.

There are also some amazing plates, a decanter (since they could not drink tap water, they used decanters, which, again, varied according to class) and china here, including a first-class cup, which still has tube worms attached to its rim; this freaked me out a bit but I still think it is so amazing.

On some of the china plates, you can see the White Star Line banner, which was imprinted onto the crockery to prevent theft. Interestingly, ‘Titanic‘ was never used in case they had to reuse the china on another voyage – naturally, this never happened.

Then it’s on to the menus (and the last meal for many of those passengers, depending on the dating) and there again, the difference between First- and Second-class vs Third-Class becomes very apparent. We actually counted the dinner options and essentially, First-Class had 11-odd meal options, whilst Third-Class had five, and whilst First-Class had “consommé olga cream of barley (soup)”, Third-Class had “vegetable soup”… I suppose even the meal names had to be plain but it really bothered me, this staggering class gap.

Something fun that the Titanic Expo previously offered was the chance to experience either a First- or Third-Class dining experience. First-Class dining would have been: “a distinctly upmarket affair as guests are served an array of canapés, dinner options and a decadent dessert,” whilst Third-Class diners, true to life, would have enjoyed pub grub fare, “with a main buffet consisting of beef sirloin, oven-baked chicken and other hearty courses.” Personally, I think the Third-Class dining experience sounds the best – but unfortunately, these special dining experiences are no longer available.

Beyond there, you can see a beautiful, carved oak lion heed-and-feet, with beading, furniture piece from the Smoking Room.

Perhaps my favourite part of these incredible, mind-blowing artifacts was the bottle section, which shows some of the wine- (of the 1,500 originally taken abroad), beer- and ale-bottles (of the 20,000 original ones) and finally, one amazing champagne bottle, which still has champagne inside it! For some reason, this really blew my mind and it was wonderful to peer through the glass at its contents.

You can read more about each of the Classes and their set perks/accesses there and across the way, you discover the first photos and background stories of several notable passengers.

These include: Father Thomas R. Byles (a Roman Catholic Priest on 2nd class, who stayed on the sinking ship to pray with other passengers), John Jacob Astor IV (an industrialist and builder on 1st class, who, according to the tour guide present, was worth roughly $100 million even then; he was travelling with his second wife, Madeleine, who was pregnant) and finally, Mrs Margaret Brown, who very few people even knew was on the ship. Aside from being a Women’s Suffragist, Human’s Right Organiser and acquaintance of John Astor’s, she would later famously become known as the ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’, after she rowed her life boat for seven-and-a-half hours.

The last display cabinet contains different tiles (blue-and-white ones made in the Netherlands by German company, Villeroy & Boch Mettlach were used in the First- and Second-Class lavatories, whilst Third-Class was given serviceable black-and-white tiles), a Galley floor tile (made by JC Edwards), which prevented the crew from slipping, and red-and-white Fleur-de-Lis flooring (used throughout the Second- and Third-Class public spaces) and bath valves made by Doulton & Co, Ltd, London. Baths were filled with hot and cold seawater and fresh water pitchers were kept on the baths for rinsing off afterwards.

After that, you enter into a white-walled corridor, with maroon flooring, which recreates the Titanic’s interior and can walk past a Third-Class cabin, complete with twin bunk beds. Most likely, four passengers, who each spoke a different language, (and thus had no real way of conversing with each other) would have occupied such a room.

Although it was interesting to learn that, instead of the usual straw-filled beds, the Titanic used real mattresses, it somehow disturbed me to see clothes and suitcases set out on these beds. I really did get the chills as again, the reality and immensity of this devastating maritime tragedy – which remains one of the greatest in our world’s history – hit me.

My unease was soon replaced by renewed outrage when we learned that third-class passengers had to share two bathtubs between 700 people, whereas First-Class suites each had their own bathtub!

The last photograph you see in there is of the Laroche family. Mr Joseph Laroche, believed to be the only black man aboard the Titanic, was a Second-Class engineer and he and his young family were only on the ship because the steamship, France, did not allow children on-board it.

Outside, two mannequins don evening finery, just as they would have on that cold, fateful night, and we laughed when we noticed that someone had planted a kiss on the male mannequin’s face, as evident by the bright red lipstick stain on his left cheek.

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Just when we thought the Expo was over, we discovered an upstairs section, which can be accessed via several flights of stairs,  leading from a starkly white room made to look like the inside of the ship, with its sunset portholes and bare walls. We took the opportunity to take some photos together in there as it is not, strictly speaking, part of the actual Exhibition.

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Please select Part 2 of my Titanic Expo. to read about the remainder of the Exhibition and how I rated our overall Titanic Experience. 🙂

 

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