Titanic exhibit put off course

Science center sues salvage company to include artifacts

Revenue loss for museum

October 13, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

An exhibit on the Titanic scheduled to open next month at the Maryland Science Center has been pushed back to February while the museum fights to include photography and artifacts controlled by the New York company that owns salvage rights to one of the world's most famous shipwrecks.

The dispute has cost the Inner Harbor museum, which estimates it will lose about $560,000 because of the three-month delay, according to court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The museum could lose much more, though, if it fails in its court battle to force RMS Titanic Inc. to live up to an agreement to provide items from the ship and other support for "Titanic Science: Depths of Discovery." The exhibit is expected to generate $1.5 million to $2 million, court records show.

"Given the Science Center's tremendous investment in the exhibit, the center reasonably expected significant returns," Stephanie Ratcliffe, the museum's director of exhibits, said in a recent affidavit. Ratcliffe said the exhibit was expected to account for as much as 30 percent of the center's 2001 budget.

The exhibit is billed as an interactive exploration of the science surrounding the 1912 sinking of the ill-fated passenger liner. After its opening in Baltimore, museum officials expect the exhibit to tour to several other science museums nationwide. Each museum would pay $145,000 to the science center for a three-month booking, according to court records.

In its lawsuit filed earlier this year, the science center alleged that RMS Titanic had backed the project since its conception more than two years ago and agreed to provide recent film footage of the wreck as well as personal artifacts and steel and rivets salvaged from the underwater wreck - the kind of objects that have fueled public fascination with the 88-year-old disaster and could help ensure a strong turnout for the science center's exhibit.

But after a battle for corporate control of the Titanic's remains last year, new owners SFX Entertainment ousted the president who had been negotiating with the Maryland Science Center. The new management demanded in a letter that the Baltimore museum stop developing and marketing its planned $2.3 million exhibit, which they said could compete with its own touring exhibition of Titanic artifacts.

Contract denied

Over the past several years, RMS Titanic has drawn more than 4 million people to inspect items such as the White Star Line china, hair combs, luggage and uniforms of the ship's staff.

In court papers, company attorneys say there was no contractual agreement for RMS Titanic to participate with the science museum's exhibit. They also suggest that the project does not hinge on the items the company might provide.

"It strains credulity for the Science Center to assert that it was going to base its exhibit on only some rusty rivets and a limited amount of film," company attorneys said in court papers.

This week, a federal judge refused a request by RMS Titanic to dismiss the lawsuit or move it to a court outside Maryland. The company had suggested sending the case to Connecticut, where it has a separate lawsuit involving its former president pending in federal court.

`Valid interest' found

But U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis wrote in an opinion Tuesday that the science center "has a valid interest in having its controversy resolved expeditiously and not as a `side show'" to another case.

Garbis has asked the two sides to try to settle the case, but court records show a settlement conference is not scheduled until Feb. 5.

Meanwhile, science center officials are preparing to launch the exhibit next winter with or without the cooperation of RMS Titanic and its artifacts, Christine Rowett, the museum's director of media relations, said yesterday. (The museum has spent about $140,000 from a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant for the exhibit, court records show.)

"They have been frustrated. However, they're going ahead and doing what they can," Rowett said. "And from what I understand, they're making good progress."

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