Greatness in the minutiae of the wreckage

Greatness in the minutiae of the wreckage

An exhibit of artifacts from the Titanic opens today at Science Center

February 12, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

One night five years ago, Mark Lach stood on the deck of the Keldysh, a Russian research vessel, in the chilly North Atlantic. The wreckage of the Titanic, then 88 years old and the object of his professional study, lay in absolute darkness more than two miles down. Finally, an eerie glow suffused the waters below, an incandescence that grew in brightness as it rose to the surface.

A "submersible" research vessel, the Mir 1, popped into view, and with it the crew of three, bearing another day's discoveries from the ocean floor.

Lach, the longtime designer of Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, which opens today at the Maryland Science Center, says every trip down to the "debris field" around the Titanic yields a bounty, but that one made a special impression. When he helped open the leather satchel his colleagues had found, the "whole room filled with a lovely fragrance. We were looking at vials of perfume."

Penny-ante stuff, you might think, when you're talking about a luxury liner whose gargantuan size -- 882 feet long, 11 stories high, nearly 47,000 tons in weight -- has only been eclipsed by the legend it spawned when it hit an iceberg and sank April 15, 1912, killing 1,517 people.

But as visitors to the Science Center will learn between now and Labor Day, Lach -- who has shepherded the exhibition for the past six years -- sees minutiae as the key to communicating the legend's more outsized truths.

"The Titanic sank 93 years ago now," says Lach, "but it's still a fresh and vital story for so many people. The details make a grand legend much more personal."

The tale of Adolphe Saalfeld is a case in point. According to exhibitors, the 47-year-old parfumeur from Manchester, England, boarded the Titanic as a first-class passenger, carrying with him a case of 65 vials of fragrances he probably hoped he'd sell to New York buyers. Five of those vials are on display, along with five Saalfeld & Co. paper labels. Holes in the display case allow visitors to inhale the scents he was peddling.

"Mr. Saalfeld was one of the lucky ones," says Lach. "He survived. But actually smelling the perfumes -- it just about puts you there as the ship went down." Saalfeld was one of 706 who survived.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, doesn't skimp on the big stuff. Since 1991, a company called RMS Titanic Inc., which owns salvage rights to the artifacts from the wreckage, has taken the show to more than 40 cities worldwide, from Osaka, Japan, to Oslo, Norway, attracting more than 15 million paying customers.

Everything from a 2 1/2 -foot wrench (used during the two-year construction) to a projected image of the ship's famous grand staircase, guarded by a carved cherub have been shown. A third-class berth containing two simple bunk beds (one-way ticket price, about $620 in today's dollars) faces a first-class suite, replete with Oriental rug, settee and paneled walls ($44,000 fare in modern terms), epitomizing the class differences between the 710 "steerage" passengers, most of them European immigrants, and the 329 first-class travelers on the doomed journey.

Visitors can touch a big wall of ice and learn that the water in which so many died was about 4 degrees colder. "Most of the victims didn't drown," says Van Reiner, interim executive director of the Science Center, all but shivering at the thought. "They died of hypothermia."

But the smaller details bring the infamous voyage even more vividly to life. A dented chandelier, a passenger's Trilby hat, a silver hot-chocolate pitcher, a pair of socks seem the very warp and woof of lives, rich and poor, that began a journey with great optimism, only to see it end in tragedy.

Baltimoreans will appreciate a section that shines a light on local characters, including Gilman School graduate Walter Lord, whose book A Night to Remember is one of the best-known accounts of the accident, and Lucille Polk Carter, a Baltimore-born beauty who, along with her husband, William, and children, survived the disaster. (Carter, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, joined White Star Line director Bruce Ismay in one of the last lifeboats, a fact that made both the target of scorn the rest of their lives.)

Visitors won't feel quite the same drama Lach has in the three times he has visited the site of the wreck, but thanks to his affectionate stewardship, their connection to the Titanic is likely to be personal.

On entry, each guest receives a replica White Star Line boarding pass that bears the name, traveling class and brief biography of a real-life passenger. In the exhibition's final room, they'll encounter a wall that lists the fate of each man, woman and child. (There we learn, among other things, that 199 of the 329 first-class passengers survived; in third class, only 174 of 710 made it.)

"That can be a moving moment," says Lach thoughtfully. "I've heard parents standing there and explaining to their kids what death is, often for the first time, or why poor people get different treatment than the rich.

"It's still a very emotional story. I've been doing this for six years now, and it never loses its relevance."

Exhibit

What: Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition

Where: Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.

When: Today through Sept. 5; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Adults $19.50, children (ages 3-12) $13.50; $18.50 for those 60 and older

Call: 410-685-5225 or visit marylandsciencecenter.org

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