Titanic brings us deep into history - and ourselves
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Monday, 14 March 2016 00:00
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By Lloyd Gorman

The story of RMS Titanic - rather than the ship itself - would become an unstoppable - perhaps even unsinkable - juggernaut. For more than a hundred years now the world has marvelled and speculated about the rise and demise of what was the greatest and most luxurious ship in the world. Citizens of China, America, England as well as a raft of other countries besides, including Bulgaria and Lebanon, numbered amongst the more than 1,500 souls to be lost on the 15th of April 1912.

 

Ireland has always shared a special stake in the tragedy but also the wider tale of the Titanic. Fashioned together by the will, sweat and blood of thousands of workers in the ship building yards of Belfast - from where she would ultimately begin her fateful voyage her last port of call was Queenstown (Cobh) where a large number of Irish and other passengers boarded, and a fortunate few stepped off and ended their voyage in the Cork harbour town, (including the snap happy Irish priest Fr. Francis Brown whose fascinating collection of photographs taken during his brief time on board would become a rare and invaluable insight and record into life on board). Most photographs you see of people on board Titanic today were taken by him.

Irish Scene has marked the 2012 centenary and other Titanic tales, including trips to the dedicated museum and monument in Belfast and the Titanic Experience in Cobh. So when an exhibition about the world's most famous ship pulled into Perth, Irish Scene felt compelled to take a look. Two complimentary tickets were provided by the exhibition organisers to accommodate this review.

Titanic The Exhibition opened at the Perth Covention and Exhibition Centre in December 2015 and has been extended to run until March 20, 2016. Apparently it is only being staged in Perth and not in any other Australian city.

I took my eight year old son, Hugh, for two reasons. Hugh has already been to the Titanic centre in Cobh two years ago and this seemed a perfect opportunity to reinforce anything he might have learned or picked up that time. I also wanted to try and get an idea of how a young child related to the exhibition.

The experience starts right outside the main area, when you are given your handed a boarding pass. Hugh was one John Pillsbury Snyder, an American who boarded from Southampton on April 10 and was a first class passenger. I too got on at Southampton but as a third class (steerage) traveller with the name Lee Ling from Hong Kong I wouldn't be going anywhere in the same style or comfort. They do the same in Cobh as you enter that centre and it is a great way of giving the visitor a short cut into the story of the Titanic and its cargo of people, and letters.

As you enter the main hall area you are invited to pose for a photograph in a mocked up bow with a life preserver bearing the name of the ship on it, just in case there was any doubt. I guess you could choose not to stop for a cheesy or cheeky moment but most people seemed happy to do so.

(There is another staged photo opportunity later on the famous recreation of the Titanic's lavish stairwell ) From there it was onto the business of the exhibition. A large space was used to depict the side of the Titanic at dock, with entry through a small doorway and passage way.

On the other side you come out into another large room, filled with displays of all sorts. One feature I hadn't seen anywhere else was a large (1:48 scale) OR IS IT 1:52 image ))))))))CHECK))))))) of the Titanic, with cut aways for different sections. This gave you a good visual guide to the structure and make up of the ship itself. Hugh immediately looked for the first class section, and then third class.

The comparison was made even starker for him when an actor playing the part of Titanic captain Edward J Smith took an interest in our little party. He was immediately able to tell Hugh that his ticket was infinitely better than the one his dad had and pointed out why on the large image. This satisfied my eight year old no end. The good captain hit a nice balance between role playing and helpful guide. The exhibition has two captains who alternate on different days and this was a really nice touch. Another actor we saw was a junior sailor who asked to see our tickets and treated us accordingly, another nice touch. An interesting side note about Capt. Smith - who went down with his ship of course - was that he went to sea as a very young man and was a very capable and accomplished seafarer. Before he captained the Titanic, he joined the White Star Line (which owned Titanic) in 1888 and joined the Celtic as a fourth officer and within a year was Master of the ship.

A lot of the exhibition was similar to what you will see in Belfast and Cobh, such as rooms decked out in the fashion and fixtures of the different classes of passenger, displays of artefacts and items that would have been found on board. The rooms and displays were impeccably done and on a par with anything you might see elsewhere. Giving a sense of the style and space - or lack of it - for passengers is essential to understanding life on board. First class had full access to huge areas of the ship, while second class enjoyed something more modest and third class - of which a large number were Irish - were squeezed into the bowls of the boat. Third class passengers paid about £40 or £940 in today's money to get across the Atlantic while the entry cost for first class started at £150 (£3,525) and went up to £3,300 (£77,500).

Every board I read was informative and well written and researched. If I felt like I already knew a decent amount about the Titanic before going into this exhibition I certainly left a lot better informed. I couldn't recall clearly if I had already heard or seen somewhere else the fact that Titanic had 16 watertight compartments and that the designer had boasted that the ship was so safe that even if the ship was dissected crosswise into three pieces each section would still float. Of course the confidence of its designer was betrayed by bad luck and nature but this little detail helped me understand more clearly why Titanic was deemed to be 'unsinkable'.

But as well written and educational as the information boards were I felt the text on them could have been a bit larger to make it easier to read from more of a distance. There may also be a case for having them installed a bit lower, to accommodate smaller people (children) trying to look at them. In fact, as we went on through the exhibit I started to wonder if there might be some merit in actually have a separate sign for children to read beneath the main one. These could be written or presented especially for kids and form part of a trail throughout the exhibition. I found myself trying to read something while Hugh was almost always trying to drag me into the next room to see what was there. Perhaps displays dotted around the place aimed at younger children would help them to get something more out of the experience. Or perhaps even an entire section given over the children who were onboard that terrible night. Children love children and see themselves in images and pictures of other kids. It could be a great way to bring them into the bigger story. And of course the principal of women and children first into the lifeboats was a major factor in deciding who survived or perished. (A dedicated children's section is probably something other Titanic centres could also consider adding) It would be hard to fault the exhibition for grown up visitors. There was a lot there to interest and inform adults and even older children (teenagers and up) but I don't think it would capture younger minds as well. A video showing how the Titanic sunk is a standard feature of most exhibits and was one that Hugh watched, twice. He also seemed to appreciate one of the last parts of the exhibit, where film of the Titanic resting on the seabed was shown in a room that had been adapted to make it look and feel like the bottom of the sea.

Other Titanic exhibits have large scale replicas of the ship, some even have big models made from iron that show how it rests in its watery grave.. These features always go down well with little folk who like to study them. There was a model of a ship towards the end of the exhibit but it wasn't of the Titanic.

But that was a worthwhile room and part of the self guided tour. It looked at Perth and WA's own maritime past and any connections to Titanic. It was here that I learned about Koombana, dubbed Australia's Titanic for good reason. SS Koombana operated coastal liner services between Fremantle and ports in the northwest of the state between March

1909 and March 1912. On March 20 Koombana - who was considered to be a luxury liner - was sunk at sea by a tropical cyclone with the loss of more than 100 passengers and crew, which made it Australia's worse weather related maritime disaster in the 20th century.

Music was used to good effect in the exhibition too. There was the kind of music you associate with the upper class passengers who travelled in style and some traditional Irish music, which would be associated with many of the less salubrious passengers. And movie buffs would certainly the dedicated section on films about Titanic that have been made down the ages, including one about a month after the sinking, which involved one of the survivors.

We spent about 90 minutes trawling our way through the exhibition, a bit longer than I expected it would take. The time flew and I walked away feeling I had added to my personal depth of knowledge about this fascinating chapter in history. Quite what my eight year old took away from it I'm not certain. I do know that he enjoyed the fact that as well as beating his dad by being a first class passenger he revelled in the fact his passenger survived while mine didn't. The names of all those who were rescued or lost were displayed on a large screen at the end of the tour, broken down into the different classes, and those who survived or not. One small criticism is that the names (perhaps because of the restriction on space and having so many names) could have been printed larger to make it easier for exhibition goers to find their passenger, which almost everyone seemed to do. I suspect that many people also search through the names looking for anyone bearing their own family name, perhaps looking for the possibility of a remote persona link.

At just over $31 an adults ticket (17+) is probably fairly priced considering how much effort was put into the exhibition by the promoters. But junior tickets (4 to 16) at just over $19 probably don't represent such good value. Children, at least those up until the age of 12, should probably be allowed free entry, or for a nominal fee.

If you think you would enjoy the exhibition, you almost certainly will.

Time to visit it however is fast running out, with the last chance to board so to speak on March 20.

No doubt public interest in the story of RMS Titanic will continue to grow. As I was writing this review it emerged that scientists now believe the iceberg that sank the Titanic was a chunk of ice estimated to be about 100,000 years old when it formed. It just goes to prove that there is always something new and interesting we can learn even about one of the world's most best known stories.

Last Updated ( Monday, 14 March 2016 08:29 )