Visitors to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota are informed that story of the doomed ocean liner has never been so “poignantly and passionately” told as in the exhibit at hand. Millions of moist-eyed moviegoers may take exception to that assertion, but it is certainly true that the exhibit does tell the story with poignancy and what is, in such a lavish show, commendable restraint.
The cost of building SMM’s current home was comparable to the cost of a big-budget Hollywood film, and the parallel is apt, as big-budget science museums are like big-budget films: it’s easy to make something that looks impressive, but hard to make something that actually has merit. Blockbuster exhibits at science museums push the line between educational value and bankability even further than comparable shows at art museums; the CSI exhibit that recently visited SMM was a painful embarrassment, with visitors shuffling among video screens that congratulated them on the clever sleuthwork it took to shuffle among video screens. The preceding Star Wars exhibit was similarly chancy on the science end, but at least the designers of that exhibit were obviously, and appropriately, aware that the “educational” aspect of the show was only a sheen to make it acceptable for non-profit institutions to host a traveling collection of film props.
Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition pulls a reverse trick. The show’s very title acknowledges that the recovered artifacts are the hooks that pull bodies into the door, but with inventive and informative displays, the exhibit actually manages to be so educational that it would be well-worth a visit even without the macabre bling.
Visitors to the exhibit—the largest single exhibit ever staged at SMM—pass through a series of rooms that tell the story of the Titanic from its conception through the rescue of the wreck’s survivors. New in this installation of the show, which has been traveling for over a decade (it previously visited Minnesota in 1999), are artifacts from Carpathia, the ship that rescued the Titanic survivors; it fell victim to German torpedoes in the Great War.
Appropriate to its subject, the show feels spacious and luxurious. Each room has its own distinct theme, with accompanying visual and sound design. Placards present exactly the right type and amount of information; it’s a show that you’ll want to read from beginning to end. The 250+ artifacts, climaxing with a two-ton section of the ship’s hull (spoiler! it looks exactly like a two-ton section of a ship’s hull), are alluringly displayed in pools of light. Concise text accompanying each artifact pithily connects the pieces to human-interest stories without veering into Erik-Larson-style fictionalization. Even the costumed interpreters manage to help set the mood with minimal awkwardness, and the touchable ice wall—which, I will admit, made me roll my eyes when I heard of it—does its job, giving visitors a prick of the frigid temperature of the water Titanic sank in.
The exhibit is genuinely moving, the human stories it showcases reminding visitors of why the story of the Titanic—the story of a glorious dream turned, in an instant, into a horrific nightmare—has held seemingly endless fascination for nearly a century now. The one major gap in the show is information on the wreck’s discovery and the recovery of the artifacts on display; fortunately, that is the subject of the film Titanica, playing concurrently at the Omnitheater.
As with any name-brand exhibit, you’ll have to brace yourself for the themed gift shop awaiting you at the exit—but clearly there’s ample demand for, among other things, necklaces containing coal dust recovered from the wreck. I was abashed to pose in front of a green screen at the exhibit’s entrance, but my father enthusiastically purchased two copies of a photo of us apparently standing at the base of Titanic’s grand staircase. Walking to the car, Dad offered an assessment I couldn’t argue with: “That was a heck of an exhibit!”
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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