Wednesday October 22, 2014




School lesson leads to Titanic adventure

News-Optimist First Person Exploits Into the Unknown
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Ironically, the backgrounds you can choose for your Titanic portrait are not actually featured in the exhibit.

It all started back in September. We were waiting for my son's homeschooling curriculum to arrive in the mail and it was late. He was bored and wanting work to do! I did some research, on the Internet, and pulled up some information on the RMS Titanic. I printed the sheets off and assigned the questions to Alisdair to complete.

To "round out" the experience, I read him some articles about the supposedly unsinkable ship. We ordered books from the library and later we found other curriculum to supplement these studies.

And then I can't even remember how I learned the Telus World of Science facility in Calgary would be sponsoring "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" in 2011. More than 300 items, retrieved from the wreckage, would be available for viewing. I quickly wrote the dates in my day planner as I mentally added the show to our family's "Bucket List" of things to do.

The exhibition, subtitled "Real Objects/Real Stories," began in February and concludes June 27. Every once in a while, the topic of heading to Calgary, to see the Titanic memorabilia, would crop up in conversation. I didn't want to drive by myself, but it seemed like it never worked to get away as a family. Finally, on the spur of the moment, we decided to take in the show over the May long weekend.

Almost at the last minute, my parents decided to come too, and so three generations of the clan climbed into the mini-van and headed to Calgary. Despite the short notice, my brother and his wife graciously hosted us and even chauffeured us to Telus World of Science. Since a new venue is currently under construction, there were some minor detours required.

When we arrived, many people were plugging the meters in the parking lot, however my brother had contacted the Calgary Parking Authority earlier and learned, since it was a statutory holiday, we didn't have to pay to park the vehicles. What we saved on parking, we spent on admission, as the exhibition was pricey - $12 for children; $19.75 for youths and seniors and $23.50 for adults. Additional charges of $3.50 applied if visitors wished to take in a "dome show" (movie) and audio guides were $5 each. After paying the $76 for admission and an audio guide, I hoped I wouldn't be disappointed.

Immediately upon entering, each member of our party was given a White Star Line Boarding Pass. Each contained the name, and other facts about an actual passenger on the RMS Titanic. My husband, John, took on the identity of Mr. Thomas William Solomon Brown, aged 69, who was from Cape Town, South Africa. Mr. Brown had been accompanied on his journey by his wife, Elizabeth and his daughter, Edith Eileen, who was 15, at the time of the voyage. Elizabeth was his second wife and she was 20 years younger than Thomas. According to the card, Brown was a successful hotelier ready to start a new business. The family were travelling, as second class passengers, from South Africa to Seattle, where his sister-in-law lived.

Isobel, my five-year-old, became Mrs. Hudson J. C. Allison (also known as Bess Waldo Daniels). She was 25 at the time of her passage on the RMS Titanic. Allison was from Chesterville, Ont. and was returning there. She was travelling first class. She had accompanied her husband on a business trip and the family were returning to Canada. On a side trip to Scotland, she had selected furniture for their house and recruited new household staff for their two residences.

My son, Alisdair, was given a card indicating he was Mr. Edward Ryan, a 24-year-old from Ballinareen, County Tipperary, Ireland. Edward was immigrating to Troy, N.Y. where his sister lived. He hoped to find work there. Edward was enthusiastic about travelling on the RMS Titanic. While on board, he befriended an engineer who let him tour the ship's engine room.

I became Miss Hilda Mary Slater from Halifax, N.S. Slater was returning from a trip to England where she had purchased her wedding dress. After she arrived in New York, Hilda planned to marry Harry Lacon, the son of a British Baron who lived on an island off the coast of British Columbia. In 1902, Slater had moved to Italy in the hopes of becoming a professional singer. She met with little success. Her brother, who had supported her for nearly 10 years, withdrew his assistance, forcing Hilda to give up her dream.

Next, it was on to having our photographs taken in front of a "green screen." Photos were later available for viewing in the gift shop. Patrons could chose which background they wanted did they want to be standing at the foot of the grand staircase or with the largest piece of the Titanic ever salvaged behind them? You could even have the "ghost" of Captain Smith behind your family group on the staircase! I thought it was a bit odd that neither background offered was part of the actual exhibition both the recreated grand staircase and the largest piece of the Titanic salvaged are located elsewhere. Unfortunately, no other photography on the tour was allowed.

The first stop on the actual tour was the "Seabed Gallery." It was darkened with a lot of blue spotlighting to make you feel as if you were actually under water. In this section there was a special display case with plexi-glass on top. Some round holes were drilled in the protective cover and those viewing the display were encouraged to poke their fingers through these to touch a piece of angle iron salvaged from the ship. There was a video of an actual salvage operation on the seabed and another huge display case full of china. The wooden shelving unit, the dishware had been in, had rotted away, but the dishes were still stacked together in the sand. There were small items, like someone's spectacles, or a lead pencil with an eraser still attached to the end, as well as much larger items.

From the "Seabed Gallery," we entered what was known as the "Construction Gallery." This section of the exhibition featured large actual photographs of the construction phase of the RMS Titanic. Details were given about various aspects of the launch. One of the most amazing things salvaged, in this area, was a huge piece of an engine, called an Eccentric Strap.

We then moved through, past a leather suitcase belonging to a passenger on the ill-fated liner, to the "Passenger Gallery." Here we viewed things like a gold barrette, jewellery, playing cards, post cards, a bowler hat (with a few pieces of felt missing), a suit (found in someone's suitcase), razors, an actual sink (complete with taps), opaque crystal vases and a selection of china from the first, second and third class dining rooms. Some of the elegant blue and gold patterns had come off some of the first class china due to the many years in the salty ocean brine. There were even bottles of champagne some unopened a spitoon, a fragile lightbulb that had been broken but painstakingly pieced back together, and even a glass pepper shaker.

At certain times of the day, children could go to an area, known as the "Engineering Deck" where they could do experiments or other Titanic related activities. At this point, one could continue up a ramp, to the second floor or branch off to the "Creative Kids Museum." Since, at 5, Isobel wasn't interested in the Titanic artifacts, I spent a lot of time in the Creative Kids Museum/Imagination Playground. Admission to this area was included in the price of the Titanic Exhibition.

The designers of this play place seemed to have thought of everything. There were musical tiles on the floor, a heat wall, walls to write on with markers and chalk, huge foam blocks to build with, a bed of nails to lie on, and even a stage area where would-be musicians could show off with toy air-guitars, and climbing facilities. Workers were available to do activities with the children. Isobel got to do some painting with ice cubes and tempera paint powder. Eventually, I was relived of my childcare duties and could return to view the rest of the exhibit.

A display near the ramp to the second floor, featured three recreated ship whistles. There was also a banner noting the Titanic (if stood on end) would have been taller than the Calgary Tower.

We walked through a narrow hallway recreated to look like one of the third class cabins, complete with narrow wooden bunk beds. Another display cabinet held a huge lump of coal and a huge rusted wrench used on the liner. I was surprised the coal was not black. We passed an overhead "watertight" door, eventually coming to a display case with a set of binoculars in it. Unfortunately the binoculars that were supposed to be used in the crowsnest had been misplaced, so these are believed to have belonged to one of the passengers. The loss of the binoculars may have contributed to the crash as we were told "only 37 seconds passed between the lookout's warning about the iceberg ahead, and the moment of impact."

In the "Iceberg Gallery" a huge man-made iceberg stood to one side. Those touring were encouraged to touch the cold wet mass. The audio guide suggests imagining what it would have been like in the water of the Atlantic that evening. The water was even colder than the iceberg itself and it was suggested many of the passengers died of hypothermia not drowning.

Near the end of the exhibit, was the "Memorial Gallery." Here you learned the fate of the passenger you had impersonated. Both Mr. Thomas William Solomon Brown and Mrs. Hudson J. C. Allison perished during the sinking. Their bodies were never recovered. Hilda Slater and Edward Ryan were more fortunate and survived their ordeal. Although she lost her expensive European trousseau, Slater married her beloved and had a son. She died of cancer in 1965 and was buried in Halifax.

Ryan returned to England three years after the sinking of the Titanic. He, too, married and had three children. He died in November 1974. In a letter to his parents, dated May 6, 1912, Edward wrote:

"I stood on the Titanic and kept cool, although she was sinking fast. She had gone down about forty feet by now. The last boat was about being rowed away when I thought in a second if I could only pass out [i.e. get into the boat] I'd be all right. I had a towel round my neck. I just threw this over my head and left it hang in the back. I wore my waterproof overcoat. I then walked very stiff past the officers, who had declared they'd shoot the first man that dare pass out. They didn't notice me. They thought I was a woman. I grasped a girl who was standing by in despair, and jumped with her thirty feet into the boat."

Near the end of the exhibit were two wall panels telling the story of Albert and Vera Dick. The Dicks, who were first class passengers returning to Calgary after a European honeymoon, were on the RMS Titanic. Both survived, although Albert was derided for having escaped in a lifeboat. It was said he was embracing Vera before putting her into a waiting lifeboat and was inadvertently pushed into it himself.

Another display case, near the end of the exhibit, featured the belongings of one man who had been going to travel on the RMS Titanic. A friend, who was to accompany him, brought the gentleman's tools aboard. The friend, lost his life, while the owner of the tools did not arrive on the day of the sailing and narrowly escaped death.

It was with mixed emotions we concluded our visit to the exhibition, realizing if we had indeed been on board the ship, only two (of our party of eight) would have survived. The stories of the individual passengers brought reality to the tragedy. We were also divided as some thought the wreck should have been left as a sacred burial ground, while others agreed with salvaging the items of historical significance from two and a half miles below the ocean. It is thought that, within the next few decades, the remains of the Titanic will be destroyed, due to the harsh environment surrounding the ship and so the thinking is, the various exhibitions will preserve it for others to enjoy for years to come.

There are currently six versions of "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" on display around the world. The current locations are London, England; Davenport, Iowa; Winnipeg, Man.; Calgary, Alta. and Porto Alegre, Brazil. All of these exhibitions will conclude in June or July, with the artifacts continuing to tour in other locations. Shows will be opening, later this summer, in Greensboro, N.C. and in Detroit, Mich. Visitors to The Luxor in Las Vegas, Nev. can also view items salvaged from the wreck. The Vegas showings began in 2008 and will continue over a period of 10 years, giving plenty of folk the opportunity to see these items.

While perhaps slightly overpriced, our trip to Calgary to experience "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" was an interesting excursion and a learning experience. If you are at all curious about the exhibition, you haven't yet "missed the boat!" You still have a one weekend left before it ends. Pack up the family minivan and head to Calgary for a journey back in time and into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. After all, it's not everyone who can say they have "touched a piece of angle iron" from the great ocean liner the RMS Titanic.


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