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94 years later, Titanic still fascinates

Wistful music plays in a darkened room as visitors file past glass cases displaying the detritus of tragedy past.
Dozens of au gratin dishes are exhibited as they were found during one of RMS Titanic Inc.'s expeditions to the Titanic debris field at 'Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition' at the Metreon in San Francisco, June 13, 2006. The dishes were still crated aboard Titanic, but once on the ocean floor, the wooden crate was eaten away by micro-organisms, leaving the dishes in near-perfect condition and well-organized rows.Eric Risberg / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wistful music plays in a darkened room as visitors file past glass cases displaying the detritus of tragedy past.

The items may seem unremarkable at first - a pair of old-fashioned spectacles, a battered bowler hat - but these are relics from the Titanic, material links to the human side of that iconic event.

"It's just a story that has thousands of human stories inside of it," said John Zaller, designer of "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," which recently sailed into San Francisco.

Six years shy of its centennial, it would seem that everything has already been said about the April 15, 1912, sinking of the "practically unsinkable" Titanic. But while other disasters have faded quietly into the pages of history, Titanic lives on.

"Every element of what it means to be human is encapsulated in that vessel after the iceberg hits," said Zaller. "Every human emotion is evoked in the decision of whether you get in the lifeboat or whether you stay behind - how you say your goodbyes and how you meet your end."

The show, which runs here through September, highlights the human element, handing out replica boarding passes at the entrance that carry a short biographical sketch of an actual passenger.

The tour begins with the somber room displaying personal belongings recovered from the ship. Around a corner, the mood is brighter as period music plays and posters, written descriptions and a replica deck of authentically squeaky planks highlight the planning and construction of the ship.

A reproduction of the grand staircase, similar to one that figured in the 1997 James Cameron movie, highlights the glamour of the ship. Re-creations of first- and third-class cabins give a sense of the social divisions of the time. Millionaire John Jacob Astor perished as did millionaire playboy Benjamin Guggenheim who is famously said to have declared, "We've dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

There were heroes; boiler room workers and others stayed at their posts.

And there were fatal errors. There weren't enough lifeboats for the 2,000 people aboard - although there were more than required at the time - and the evacuation into the boats that were available was riddled with confusion.

The exhibition was created by RMS Titanic Inc., a company formed under a 1994 federal court ruling to explore and salvage the wreck of the Titanic. Although these particular items aren't scheduled to appear in any other cities, the company has other shows with different Titanic artifacts currently on display in Long Beach, Calif., Miami, Las Vegas and Des Moines, Iowa.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a 15-ton, 13-foot-by-30-foot section of the Titanic's hull, a few shards of glass still left in its portholes.

The exhibit ends with a list of the dead and the survivors, giving visitors a chance to see how the passenger on their ticket fared.

Comments in the visitor's book were mostly glowing - "Awesome!" and "Enjoyed it sadly." - although some took issue with the concept. "Amazing, but these things ought to have been left at the bottom of the sea."

The question of whether mining the Titanic for artifacts is a form of grave-robbing or preserving history has stirred debate for some years. Zaller says RMS Titanic Inc. takes only from the debris field, not from inside the ship, and notes the items will bear testament to Titanic long after the deteriorating wreck is gone.

"These artifacts tell the story of their own era, then they tell the story of a passenger or a group of passengers who may not have survived and then they also tell the story of 80-plus years on the bottom of the ocean," he said.

"They become these powerful symbols of a whole century."


TITANIC: The Artifact Exhibition,, Open through Sept. 15. Metreon, 101 Fourth St., 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103. (415) 369-6000. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Box office prices, $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $15 for children, group rates available for 20 or more.