Titanic

By Kevin Tankersley

Blockbuster exhibit comes to Mayborn

A little more than 106 years ago, the RMS Titanic left on its maiden voyage from Southampton, a city about 70 miles southwest of London, en route to New York City, where it was scheduled to arrive five days later. As everyone knows, the Titanic hit an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, and sank early the next morning. More than 1,500 people died, including the (possibly) richest person in the world.

On June 2, the Mayborn Museum in Waco will open its doors to “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” a display of more than 200 artifacts collected from the ocean floor around the sunken ship. Also on display will be rooms re-created as they were on the Titanic.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon — 106 years to the day since the Titanic launched — Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley talked with Katherine Seymour, vice president of marketing, communications and venue operations with Premier Exhibitions, the creator of the exhibition; and Rebecca Nall, assistant director of communication with the Mayborn, about the display. They had with them a half dozen or so of the artifacts that will be on view to the public.

“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” will be at the Mayborn until January 6, 2019. Tickets cost $6 for Mayborn members and Baylor students, $19 for adults, $13 for children ages 2 through 12, and $16 for those 65 and older. Tickets are available online at titanicwaco.com. It’s the first Mayborn exhibit for which the museum has sold advance tickets.

WACOAN: So why this exhibit at this time?

Nall: Well, I can answer that from the Mayborn Museum’s perspective. I think one of the really fun things about us is that we have such a varied experience that we can offer with our natural and cultural history galleries, as well as the hands-on discovery center and our historic village. So, we’re really open to bringing any kind of traveling exhibit. You’ve definitely seen that over the years. We have some that are geared more toward children and families. And we also try to bring some that will appeal to a different audience as well because we can really capture that adult component. And Titanic is obviously something that is widely appealing.

We’ve never hosted a blockbuster exhibit of this caliber before. It’s definitely the biggest exhibit that we’ve ever hosted. A couple of years ago, that was something that we just decided that we really wanted to tackle. We wanted to tackle something titanic.

We’re excited to bring this to the Waco community. Nothing like this has ever been here before. And that’s something that we always look for with our exhibits.

We feel like we’re valuable to the community in that we can offer experiences like this.

WACOAN: The flyer for the exhibition says ‘advanced purchase, time tickets.’ So, you buy tickets for a specific time. I don’t recall any exhibit in Waco, the Mayborn or anywhere else, selling time tickets. What kind of crowd are you expecting?

Nall: We’ve talked to other institutions in similar-sized cities as us, and they definitely saw a large increase in attendance. We are just trying to prepare for that. We have not sold tickets online prior to this, and that was something we knew we needed to do anyway. So in preparation for the exhibit, we’ve got our online tickets ready.

We’ll be starting to sell more things online in addition to tickets. We’re going to be offering more workshops. We’re going to have some summer camps this year and are making a tinkering space, and people will be able to sign up for those online. So, it was really good for us to be able to use this as a jumping-off point for expanding what we can do.

And, obviously, Premier has a lot of experience with traveling this exhibit and lots of different markets all over the world. They’ve told us what to anticipate, and we are only going to sell a certain number of tickets every hour to ensure that you can have a very good experience in the exhibit. That’s why we’re going to do timed tickets. [Editor’s note: Tickets are sold in 15-minute entry time intervals, but visitors are welcome to remain in the exhibit area as long as they like.]

They’re online now. They just started today. We’ve already sold some today, so that’s exciting.

WACOAN: Katherine, where else has this exhibit been?

Seymour: We’ve really played every continent in the world. It’s been seen by millions in pretty much every major city but also in small towns around the world as well.

One thing about Titanic, it’s just a universal story. Whether you came to it through elementary school and learning it through a history book or through the movies and pop culture, it really sort of resonates with everyone. And we’ve really seen globally just that enthusiasm with the story.

WACOAN: What keeps the public so fascinated about this?

Seymour: That’s a really good question. I think the one thing about Titanic is that it resonates with you because you put yourself in the shoes of the passengers. You often question what would you do, and that’s how I am.

But not only that, it’s the opulence of the story, the grandeur of the story. It’s that this was the elite. This was movie stars. The richest man in the world was on board. But it was also the story of immigrants. Just the stories of the passengers themselves tend to draw people in, and they want to know more about who was on board and why.

Yes, it’s the sinking, and yes, it’s the tragedy. But I think it’s a snapshot of a period in time where you’re able to dissect so many different factions of life, and people just get drawn to individual portions of it.

WACOAN: The richest man in the world. Who was that?

Seymour: John Jacob Astor [IV].

WACOAN: And did he perish?

Seymour: He did.

WACOAN: You mentioned the opulence of everything.

Seymour: Yes.

WACOAN: When the movie came out in 1997, my wife and I went to a re-creation of the first-class dinner. And it was multiple courses, 13 courses, just something ridiculous.

Seymour: Correct.

WACOAN: Have you sat through, have you eaten one of those dinners?

Seymour: I have eaten one of those dinners.

WACOAN: And what did you think about it?

Seymour: What’s so fascinating about it is if you look at that first-class dinner, it’s so many of the foods that were served in first class are foods that you or I would never touch today.

WACOAN: Right.

Seymour: Olga consomme is not something that you order at any five-star restaurant, no matter how fancy you are.

WACOAN: Or barley soup.

Seymour: Barley soup, exactly. But if you look at the third-class menu, that’s what we would actually serve at a five-star restaurant: steak, potatoes, vegetables from around the world. I think when you sit through a first-class meal, it’s an experience from start to finish because, again, it’s not only opulent, but it’s having you taste things that you just wouldn’t naturally come to really anywhere at this point in life. And you guys are re-creating it, right? Are you doing some for the gala?

Nall: Yes. We’re having an event on June 1 to kind of kick off the exhibit. And there’s going to be a reception at the museum first, so people will be able to get a preview of the exhibit before it opens to the public the following day. Then we’re going to have dinner at the Baylor Club. I don’t think the menu is going to be all the courses, but there are going to be several courses, I think four to six courses. There’s this book that re-creates different menus, so we’re utilizing that and some of the decor and the music, and there will be dancing. [Editor’s note: Tickets for the Evening Soiree can also be purchased at titanicwaco.com.]

WACOAN: Maybe the meal I had was kind of the chef’s interpretation of the first class because, like you said, it was stuff that we wouldn’t eat now. But there were just so many courses, and we were just miserably full by the end of the night. The chef and restaurant owner explained to us that the first-class passengers were the richest of the rich, so a course could be brought out, and they would have two or three bites of something, and that would be all.

Seymour: Correct.

WACOAN: But us working class folks, we get a steak, I don’t want to leave most of that steak on my plate. So, we were just miserable.

Seymour: You’re absolutely spot on. When you look at just the food service in general on Titanic, your breakfast was light, you had a tea time in the afternoon, but your meal in the evening is where you actually dined.

It’s so different from today where we have three set meals, and we eat a certain portion every meal. This was really an event. You came, you dressed your best, you had conversation, you did small bites throughout the evening.

And really the kitchen on board Titanic was unlike anything you would ever see. There was a wok for Asian passengers. In 1912, that was unheard of. There was a kosher kitchen for Jewish passengers. In 1912, that was unheard of. They really paid attention to the detail, and food was a big part of that journey.

WACOAN: So tell me a little bit about the artifacts you have here.

Seymour: The artifacts that we brought here today will all be in the exhibition in June. We brought sort of a sampling to give you an idea of what you will experience.

What we have here is a white, third-class mug. It’s stamped with the White Star Line logo. This would have served hot chocolate, most likely, as well as a couple other beverages, perhaps coffee.

It was stamped with a White Star Line logo for two reasons. One, White Star Line up to this point had never had china specific to one ship. They were rolling out fleets of ships, and they wanted to be able to use it across their entire fleet. Before that time, they were just using china from wherever. So this was really their first sort of ‘putting their mark’ on the shipping community.

Then, in addition to that, they wanted to prevent theft. They knew that those on board the Titanic would want a keepsake from Titanic, and this was their way to make sure that no one was taking something directly from the ship.

Next to that, this gold object is a fountain pen. In the late 1800s, fountain pens were [mass-produced] for the first time, and then a company in New York decided that they were going to make the opulent version of them. So this is what someone in high society would have carried in order to show that they were, in fact, high society. It’s pure gold, and if you look at it, it does have some ink stains on it as well.

Next to that is a dessert plate. This is a personal belonging of a passenger. This isn’t a china plate that was through White Star Line. And the reason we brought this is [because] this is actually something that many travelers to Europe would actually seek out. It’s from a manufacturer out of Holland. It’s all handcrafted and painted. Again, this is something, perhaps someone in a higher class would have purchased on their travels.

And then these are some of my personal favorites in the collection, just because of the fact that we have them. I have a $10 bank note here and a postcard. In 1912, we didn’t actually have a national currency in the U.S. All the states would print their own money. If you look at this bank note, it says it’s from a bank in Pennsylvania. It’s a little bit larger [than today’s bills]. When U.S. passengers boarded the ship, they were asked to put their money in a purse or bags. The U.K. money was accepted on board if it needed to be used at all. And then, this postcard as well is something that someone would travel with.

So the natural question is, how do we have paper and textile from the bottom of the ocean so many years later? That’s because all of these artifacts were actually found in items made of leather. The tanning process of the leather at the time actually repelled water and microorganisms. And so, purse or bag, suitcases, wallets, even things like shoes, were virtually untouched. So when you did recover them and brought them to the surface and you’d open them up, everything inside was essentially a treasure trove.

WACOAN: In addition to these, what else can folks expect to see?

Seymour: They will see personal effects. They will see a pair of shoes like I just referenced. They’ll see a first-class smoking-room chandelier that’s quite impressive. Portholes, rivets, pieces of the ship, as well as personal belongings.

There’s about 200 artifacts in the exhibition itself as well as full room re-creations. You become a passenger on board Titanic. You’re given a boarding pass the minute you walk in. That boarding pass represents someone who was a passenger on Titanic. It says your class of service, who you’re traveling with, where you were traveling from, where you were traveling to, as well as some basic information about yourself.

And then you follow that passenger through their journey of Titanic. So, you enter the Harland & Wolff shipyards. You get to become a passenger and see the first-class accommodations, third-class accommodations. And you travel all the way through to the end where we have a replica iceberg, and you can put your hands against it, feel the water temperature that night, learn about recovering conservation efforts. Then in the final gallery, there’s a memorial wall, and you find out whether you survived or perished in the sinking.

WACOAN: That could be kind of — maybe sobering. Is that the right word?

Seymour: Yes. I think sobering is the right word. I think, again, so many people come to Titanic with almost this mystique about it. They’re so caught up in the fact that it was the Edwardian era, the pop culture, with Kate [Winslet] and Leonardo [DiCaprio]. And at the end of the day, this is still a tragedy, and lives were lost. Individual lives were lost.

So you are John Jacob Astor, for example, but you were traveling with your new wife, Madeleine. So now not only do you want to find out about yourself, but you want to find out the fate of your wife. You become very connected to your passenger and want to learn more, and that’s something that we hope people understand and take away and do further research against.

WACOAN: How many rooms are you re-creating?

Seymour: We re-create two full rooms, first class and third class. Those are full re-creations to the time. But there’s actually seven galleries in the exhibition. You walk through, for example when you enter the Harland & Wolff shipyards, it’s wood planks on the floor, there’s music overhead, it’s theatrical lighting. So you’re really taken back to 1912 the minute you walk in.

WACOAN: Did you curate this exhibit?

Seymour: I did not. We have a full collections team. We have about 5,500 artifacts in our collection. They’re all recovered from the wreck site of Titanic.

WACOAN: You have 5,500 things just from the Titanic?

Seymour: Just from Titanic. All recovered from the wreck site. We’re what’s called the salvor-in-possession, which means that we’re the only entity allowed to go down to the wreck site and recover the artifacts.

So our collections team works on what pieces are going to be in the exhibition. Some of our pieces rotate out. They go on rest. Or we put new ones in, dependent on whether it’s their time to go back out on the road. So, they determine every piece that’s going to be in the exhibition, and then we have a full design team that tells the story of Titanic.

WACOAN: OK. So, how did Premier become the —

Seymour: Salvor-in-possession.

WACOAN: Yes.

Seymour: Titanic was found in 1985. We became salvor-in-possession in 1987. Essentially what that means is we were the first to go to the wreck site and recover artifacts. So maritime law is a little bit like the wild, Wild West.

When you look at shipwrecks in general, it’s really finders-keepers in terms of who goes down first and recovers artifacts. So, we had a manned submersible team that went down, recovered these artifacts, landed them in France in 1987. Those were the first batch of artifacts recovered, and then we’ve done eight subsequent dives.

WACOAN: Are there still things to be recovered on the Titanic?

Seymour: There are. So we have a court that governs the Titanic. It’s out of Norfolk, [Virginia], and that was something that was determined by both the U.K. and U.S. courts. It was internationally determined that Norfolk was going to oversee it.

Through that overseeing, we actually did not take anything from the ship itself. It’s all in the debris field, which is about 2 1/2 miles wide. There are quite a few things still down there. But we do have 5,500 artifacts in our collection, so we’re fairly confident with what we have.

But you know, Titanic is deteriorating, and there’s always a question of whether or not to go back and see if there’s anything else that should be salvaged.

WACOAN: Why did Premier decide not to take anything off the ship itself and just mine the debris field?

Seymour: I think a lot of folks think that the ship itself is still a little bit of a gravesite, and we’re respectful of that. When the ship landed on the ocean floor, it essentially broke into two. A lot of the contents of the ship spilled out onto the floor. It’s always been our objective to tell the story of Titanic, and you don’t necessarily need to collect every item off the ship in order to tell that story.

When folks come to the exhibition, they’re going to have an opportunity to see how the artifacts kind of weave their way through and paint a picture of 1912. And there’s really no need to go onto the ship unless there’s something specific that we feel helps enhance that story further. And right now, we’re very comfortable with what we have.

WACOAN: What would stop others from diving and retrieving things?

Seymour: To go to a wreck site, there’s only so many companies that can go out there and do it. You have to have a manned submersible team. It’s about 12,000 feet underneath, [or 2.3 miles]. So basically, we would know if any of those ships were rented out, and it would be illegal for those ships to send things down. You’re sort of crossing over those international laws.

WACOAN: If someone was just bound and determined to go, you’re not going to have amateurs out there scuba diving.

Seymour: Correct.

WACOAN: I didn’t realize it was 12,000 feet down. That’s going to be —

Seymour: It’s significantly difficult, and you have to have specialized equipment in order to do it. In addition to that, it costs millions of dollars to go down into the wreck site, which is probably the No. 1 barrier. [Laughs.]

WACOAN: So Premier took possession in 1987?

Seymour: Correct.

WACOAN: And how long after that did you starting touring some of the things from the Titanic?

Seymour: The first exhibition was actually developed in ’92. It was a singular exhibition. But it really didn’t begin its full worldwide tour until about 2000.

WACOAN: Somebody who has studied the Titanic and put forth effort in learning about it, what new can they learn by coming to this?

Seymour: I think, first and foremost, is that they’re actually going to see pieces of the Titanic. So if you’ve studied Titanic, you may have theories upon theories that you’ve researched.

One of the more popular ones is the ‘rivet theory’ — that there was faulty rivets on Titanic. And because of those faulty rivets, when it hit the iceberg, they essentially popped out of their holes and sunk the ship. We have rivets in the exhibition that you can come see and come look at.

So if you’re someone who’s coming from a ship-building background, and you know everything there is about Titanic, this is your opportunity to see it in person. If you’re someone who studied the passenger stories, you get to see the personal effects in person.

The exhibition is very much tailored to the novice for Titanic. We tell the story as if you’ve never heard it before. And the reason we do that is we want to introduce you to folks that you may never have heard of. You may know John Jacob Astor or Molly Brown, but you don’t necessarily know the Goodwin family or the Laroche family or the Straus family. We walk you through each one of their stories. But we also walk you through what was happening at the time. So depending on what you know, it’s your first opportunity to really see it up close.

WACOAN: I believe I read that there were some Texas connections to the Titanic.

Seymour: On the Titanic. There’s only a handful of Texas connections.

Nall: It really seemed like there was only one person that was actually from Texas. Most everyone else was maybe immigrating to the United States and then later settled in Texas. But the one person that was on the boat from Texas, he was from Groesbeck.

WACOAN: Really?

Nall: Yeah. So his story is pretty interesting. His wife was from South Africa, and they had been in South Africa for a year and were coming back. They traveled as third-class passengers. And so, it was kind of maybe a family legend at this point, but it’s said that they traveled as third-class passengers because they were bringing a lot of gemstones back from South Africa, and he didn’t want people to guess what they had in their suitcases, because some of her family was maybe in the diamond trade. But they both went down with the ship, and their suitcases were not recovered.

WACOAN: OK. Let’s talk about the story. Did you like the movie?

Seymour: I did actually.

WACOAN: Knowing what you know about the Titanic, how accurate was the movie?

Seymour: We believe the movie was about 90 percent accurate.

James Cameron took some definite license with things. Jack and Rose were not real passengers. The Heart of the Ocean was not a real necklace. You know, the sinking itself was dramatized probably more to an extreme so that you would be interested in it. Third-class passengers were not necessarily locked below the gates.

But really, everything else that is shown in that movie — what was going on at the time, what they were eating, what they were wearing, the passengers, the highlights. Those are all real stories. And one of the things that we like to point to is after you go through this exhibition and you become a passenger, at the end of Cameron’s movie, really in the sinking montage, he shows a series of individuals. You’ll see an older couple lying in bed together. That’s the Straus family. You’ll see Father Byles praying with the passengers. That is an actual individual.

So he doesn’t necessarily call them out by names, but after you go through the exhibition, you may actually see your passenger in the movie and be able to identify them. And it’s something that I think is pretty unique and special.

WACOAN: What’s your favorite story about the Titanic?

Seymour: Favorite. Oh, that’s a great question. I love the story of the Strauses. They are probably my favorite. They were the [co-owners] of Macy’s.

The Strauses were an older couple on board Titanic; they were a Jewish family that had immigrated long before and worked their way up from the South to the North. They were very wealthy, and they were overseas looking for new merchandise for their stores.

They were on the ship and when it went down, she realized that her husband was not going to make it into the lifeboat. She took off all of her jewelry, handed it to her maid, asked her maid to give that to her children, [sent her on to] the lifeboat, and basically it was her that said,

‘Where you go, I go. We lived together, we’ll die together.’

In Paris, the maid then returned the jewelry to the family. And the family became very involved in making sure not only their story was told, but also making sure that those passengers who arrived in New York of Jewish descent, who were most likely coming to the United States with almost nothing in their pockets, were able to find the help that they needed, which was a big issue in 1912.

These third-class passengers had lost almost everything. And with the help of the Strauses and Molly Brown, they were able to kind of get back up on their feet. And I think it’s just a testament that we think of Titanic as sort of this love story, but there were all walks of life on board.

WACOAN: Say, the third-class passenger. How much would it have cost for him or her to take the Titanic?

Seymour: That’s one of the biggest misconceptions about third class is that we sort of envision the poorest of the poor on board the ship and this was their only way of getting over. That’s not necessarily true.

It was about $600 in today’s money to get the ticket on Titanic in third class. Now if you were a family of six, that’s a lot of money. And that was probably the most economical way for you to get over. Now, in first class in some of the state rooms, you’re looking at $30,000 in today’s money. That just shows you the variance in class.

But a lot of folks during this time period did sell everything they had and were immigrating to the United States. So while that ticket was a little pricey, it may have been their only means of getting over here. Once they arrived in the States, they had a system set up for work or to start a new life.

But what happened is so many of the men in third class perished, and at the time it wasn’t common for women to immediately find work. When they got off the ship, they were literally left with nothing, with almost nowhere to turn. And that’s why these survivor funds became so important. That was really spearheaded by Molly Brown and the Strauses’ [family].

WACOAN: Are there any books about the Titanic that you recommend?

Seymour: So, [Charles] Haas and Jack Eaton are two pretty famous historians. They wrote a series of different books. Those are the ones that we recommend the most just because they tell the story of Titanic kind of in a comprehensive way with not necessarily all the emotion against it, and it’s pretty fact-based. We prefer those and will be selling them in the gift shop as well.

And then ‘A Night to Remember’ [by Walter Lord] is always a good one to go back to and read. It’s told in a way that’s very interesting but also is pretty factual.

And then for the younger generation, there’s a ‘Magic Tree House’ book [by Mary Pope Osborne] that’s about Titanic, and they do an excellent job of bringing the story to kids in that 7-, 8-, 9-year-old range who have a fascination with Titanic. They do a great job in talking about what happened in a way that children can really understand and resonate with it.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Nall: Tickets are available on our website or at titanicwaco.com. And one thing that’s interesting that we’re doing with the exhibit is that the [Baylor] Law School — they’re right next door, our neighbors — always does a mock trial every year for the Titanic. I think they’ve done it every year for the past 10 years. This year, we’re actually going to host it here. It’s June 25-29.

They do it from the perspective of some of the survivors, or the survivor’s family is bringing suit against the White Star Line. They have a trial for a week to try and determine fault. I think it would be really interesting for some people who have enjoyed the exhibit or want to get to know about it on a deeper level. It’s going to be every afternoon that week.

Seymour: You’re a journalism teacher. On Titanic, they had a daily newspaper. They would get all the news. And that actually was part of the reason that the signals were so jammed is because they were transferring the information of what was going on both in the U.K. and the U.S. over the Morse code lines for the daily paper.

WACOAN: So it wasn’t a newspaper of just things that were happening on the ship. It was actual news.

Seymour: It was actual news, which is just fascinating in 1912. They would get the news from the real world, and they would put out this paper. And mostly the first-class passengers received it.

WACOAN: Is there any chance some of those survived?

Seymour: We don’t have any of them now. But if that would be something that, for example, we could recover from the ship, I think we would definitely look into it. But most likely they weren’t stored in leather objects, so most likely they’re deteriorated.

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