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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Titanic Experience

Just to be contrary, Little Boy is forbidden from studying during exams. So, we found time to visit the ArtScience Museum's newest exhibition on the Titanic. It was a strictly NO PHOTOGRAPHY exhibition so I'm gonna have to try my best at painting the experience in words.

I have concluded that the Curator of the ArtScience Museum is a creative genius and an accomplished artist. An artist elicits an emotional response through his/her skill at communicating deep meaning. You cannot walk through the Titanic Exhibition without feeling emotion. I am not talking about just one emotion like for example, grief (after all, it was a tragedy). I am talking about the kind of emotional experience such as one gets when watching The Phantom of the Opera. There is joy and humour... there is awe... excitement... suspense... fear and deep grief.

When you enter, you're given a ticket with a name on it. I was 3rd class passenger Mrs Alma Paullson, travelling with children. Little Boy was Mr Julius Van der Planke, travelling with wife and children. We took the tickets and looked up at the bow of the huge ship sticking out of the wall. Right then and there, you understood how passengers would have felt when they walked along the quayside and caught sight of the behemoth - the world's largest and most luxurious ship.

Then, we walked up a ramp and viewed some exhibits and explanations of the engineering marvel that was the ship. With every explanation, we were bombarded again and again, with the ominous assurance that this was an UNSINKABLE ship. Because I know that the Titanic DID sink, I was kept on a knife's edge, like a woman with highly developed intuition who knows something is wrong but cannot argue with these knowledgeable and confident engineers. You know how you sometimes feel when someone you don't trust, tells you "Trust me".

Then we walked into a perfumed corridor, richly carpeted and hung with elegant wall lamps. Doors to to the first class cabins lined each side of the corridor. I walked through it with a sense of marvel... how lucky I am to be experiencing such luxury. If you've ever been to a 5 star resort in Bali (when home is an HDB flat) you will know what I mean.

Then we saw the insides of a first class cabin as it would have looked, all new, to a passenger. The feeling of being thoroughly spoilt by opulent creature comforts was compounded by learning that each first class ticket cost the equivalent of AU$64,000. Indeed, the 2 best suites were sold at AU$112,000 per ticket. Even Little Boy got lost in the world of extravagance. He said that it was a very nice hotel room. In the same hall as the first class cabin, we saw taps with marble splashbacks and sinks. The first class cabins had private baths and tap mixers for hot and cold water. Then we moved out of the cabin and looked at photos of the gymnasium, the Smoking Room (men only), the Reading Room (women only), the Palm Court (an indoor outdoor space with trellises and palm trees, serving tea and cakes). The chinaware from 1st, 2nd and 3rd class were displayed for all to see. There was ambient music and even a menu detailing the dishes served. It felt like a walk through the shady courtyard of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Then we turned a corner and entered the boiler room. Of a sudden, we were enveloped in the red glare of the burning hot coals that were burnt to boil the steam that powered the ship. Pictures of the Black Gang appeared on the walls with their names. The Black Gang was the crew that shovelled coal into the furnaces. We were deep in the bowels of the ship.

From the boiler room, we stepped onto the ship's deck. It was a very dark night and somehow, the curators had managed to give one the illusory sense of walking down a very very long deck and when you looked over the railings, your gaze was met with an endless night and a hundred million twinkling stars. I had never thought twinkling stars could ever look evil. The air was still on that deck, and all sound muffled. If you've been up on the ski slopes alone and afraid in the muffled silence, where every scream is absorbed by thick blankets of snow, then you will recognise the feeling again when you stand in the middle of that deck.

And then, we came face to face with The Iceberg and the words of a woman who had had a strong intuition that the ship was doomed. It is reported that Mrs Esther Hart had said to her husband when he made her board the ship "I feel worse than ever before. This ship will never reach the other side of the Atlantic". Next, in the solemn cold darkness, you can reach out your hand and feel the iceberg. In the same hall, we found more belongings that had been brought back from the depths. A pair of boots in soft leather... a chain... a wallet... a piece of paper printed with a travel itinerary. There were photos and more photos... and stories of people who had perished. In that dark endless night, you could almost hear their haunted screams.

And just when I thought I had reached the end of the exhibit, I came upon a wall of names. These saved... those perished. With a sense of reluctant eagerness, we pulled out the Boarding Passes that had been given to us at the start of the exhibition and searched our names on the wall. We had both perished. In that moment of learning our deaths, I thought that this must be what it feels like to have an out of body experience, where you've died and your spirit floats aloft to read the wall and discover its own corporeal demise.

And then when you turn the next corner, your out of body experience continues as you hover 1 foot off the ground to look at ocean sand beneath your feet and see the remains of plates, of wreckage... of chandeliers and the twisted forms of wrought iron benches. I was surprised to learn that an archaeological dive trip down to the Titanic takes 15 hours. It takes 2.5 hours just to get deep enough to see the wreck... and another 2.5 hours to come up to the surface. And again, just when I thought the exhibition had ended, the Curators brought me home to Singapore. I walked straight into a large wall depicting Singapore's streets as they were in the year 1912, and I saw newspapers and letters and condolences ... and the outpouring of grief and sympathy that was Singapore's response to the sinking of the Titanic.

That, finally, was the end.

Little Boy agreed that it was a magnificent exhibition but he has a suggestion for the ArtScience Museum. The Curators should try to replicate the ship's rocking motion on the high seas.

Little Boy's very comment itself speaks well of what the Curators have done. ONLY when the exhibits have been able to bring visitors almost there somewhere... would one feel that the rocking motion is missing. If it had been any other museum, we wouldn't have expected the rocking motion only to be startled to find it not there.

Check out this link for what I have just described...


Blur Ting said...

You are a first class story teller. It was like I was there.

petunialee said...

Ting - Gee... thanks! If you can spare the time, do visit the Exhibition... and then you'll find that the words can't really capture it all.

Anonymous said...

Petunia Lee I thoroughly enjoyed your visit to the museum with Little Boy to see the Titanic Exhibit

I've always been fascinated and overwhelmed with sadness regarding the fatal journey of the great ship that was never meant to sink.

The video you suggested was very nice...I would have liked to look at the traveling conditions for the 3rd class passengers, which were 180 degrees around the circle from what the 1st class passengers experience.

Excellent post!

petunialee said...

Theanne - Thanks for visiting the museum with me!! There was a 3rd class cabin with 4 bunk beds and the constant hum of the engines. It was said that 3rd class fittings on the Titanic were the equivalent of 2nd class on other liners... and that 2nd class treatment was the equivalent of 1st class on other liners.

I think one had to pass through the 3rd class cabins to get to the boiler room.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

u should write a book.

Ivana said...

I was so depressed after watching the movie that when husband suggested that we go visit this exhibition I refused to go... but it seems like it's not that depressing?

petunialee said...

Fry - I am writing one. Just been so busy that the last bit not quite done.

petunialee said...

Ivana - It is a solemn place. It isn't depressing. It's calm and dignified. The high drama is relatively muted... not as sensational as the film. The only obvious love story in the exhibition was that of Isidor and Ida Straus... an elderly couple whose wife refused to get one her life boat so that she could die with her husband. They were last seen holding hands sitting on a deck bench facing a giant wave of water together.

Malar said...

Such a detail post! As what Ting told i felt like i had a visual tour too!

Vey well written!