Md. Science Center battling for right to hold Titanic exhibit

Museum suing company based in New York to display ship artifacts

June 22, 2000|By Eric Siegel and Gail Gibson | Eric Siegel and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Science Center is fighting an attempt to sink its upcoming blockbuster exhibit on the Titanic.

The Inner Harbor museum has sued a New York-based company that has exclusive rights to recover items from the wreck of the ill-fated passenger liner, seeking to force the company to live up to what it described as an agreement to provide artifacts and other support for "Titanic Science: Depths of Discovery."

The suit follows a demand last month by the company, RMS Titanic Inc., that the science center stop developing and marketing the $2.3 million exhibit, which is scheduled to open in November and run for several months, court papers say. The exhibit is expected to generate about a quarter of the museum's annual revenues.

RMS Titanic demanded in a letter that the science center stop using photographs, sound recordings and scientific samples it said belonged to the company, according to the suit.

RMS Titanic said in the letter that the planned exhibition "competes directly" with its own exhibitions and is at odds with an exclusive licensing agreement the company has with another firm, according to the suit. The company threatened to sue the museum for violation of its "intellectual property rights, unfair competition and tortious interference with contractual relations," according to the suit.

Science center officials insisted yesterday that the Titanic exhibit, which incorporates a range of scientific disciplines including oceanography and geophysics, will go on with or without the company's cooperation. But they would prefer to have the company's participation.

"I think the exhibit, in addition to bringing a benefit to the public, will also benefit the science center," and RMS Titanic, said Geoffrey H. Genth, an attorney for the museum.

Genth said he hopes the differences between the museum and company could be worked out. The museum sued in federal court in Baltimore last week to have a "contingency plan" in case an out-of-court settlement could not be reached, he said.

David Hill, head of investor relations for RMS Titanic, which is publicly traded, declined to comment. Other company officials were traveling overseas and were not available to comment, he said.

The public has long been fascinated with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, thought at the time to be indestructible. It has inspired books, musicals and, three years ago, a blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Over the past several years, RMS Titanic has put on exhibitions of artifacts, drawing more than 4 million people to inspect everyday items, including combs and egg dishes.

At the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, RMS Titanic and SFX Family Entertainment, the company with which RMS says it has an exclusive operating agreement, are putting on the largest-ever exhibit, with more than 300 items.

Some 400,000 visitors have gone through the exhibit since it opened in February, said Elizabeth Keating, the museum's media relations manager. "I think the thing that so fascinates people is the artifacts really prove to you that it was real."

The museum has received a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant for the exhibit and has committed $750,000 from its own budget, the lawsuit says.

According to the museum's lawsuit, RMS Titanic had to support the exhibit since the project was conceived more than two years ago. But after a battle for corporate control in November, SFX Entertainment got control over the company's management and ousted its president, the suit says.

Some six months later, RMS Titanic wrote the science center, attempting to "disavow" its past agreements and threatening to legal action, the suit says.

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