It’s already been travelling around Spain for years, spending up to one year in cities such as Valencia, Barcelona and Bilbao, as well as across Europe – Berlin, Stockholm and Amsterdam. It takes around three weeks to disassemble and set up again, and is carried in seven trailers. It has 200 original objects, from letters to clothing. And now, in the centenary year of the disaster, Titanic the Exhibition is here in Seville, at the Pabellon de Navegacion on Isla Cartuja, where it will remain until April 2013.
Everyone knows something about the story of the Titanic, from the James Cameron mega-movie, to the aesthetic and financial disaster Raise the Titanic. Stories of feisty Molly Brown, the brave orchestra, stalwart Captain Smith, not enough lifeboats, the Carpathia. First class luxury, third-class dreams.
So seeing it all brought to life with personal possessions of passengers on the ship – both those who survived, and those who perished – is a moving experience. This exhibition traces the history of the ship, from its conception, design, building in Belfast shipyards and launch, to the fateful night of 14 April 1912 when the ship hit an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank, with the loss of more than 1500 lives (out of 2,207 on board).
The whole Titanic story is one of high emotion and drama – it’s called “the Ship of Dreams” and “the World’s Greatest Steamer”, “A Floating Palace”. This exhibition starts with the birth of “the most legendary ship in history” (for all the wrong reasons, clearly). White Star Shipping Line wanted to compete with Cunard, by building vessels far bigger than any which had sailed before.
Construction began in 1909 and took 27 months, with 3000 men working at the shipyard in Belfast. Some of the memorabilia includes part of the ship wall, to show the screws – welding wasn’t used then; a photo of a propeller next to a bus, to show its massive scale; and information about the ship’s designer, who was so meticulous that he supervised all the work himself and wanted to be on the maiden voyage to make sure everything worked correctly, and take notes on any possible improvements. Yes, it’s all steeped in anticipation of the tragedy-that-we-know-is-to-come.
Plans show the 15 water-tight compartments – if one floods, the others will be closed off, up to a maximum of five; lifeboat drills were deemed unnecessary, as the Titanic was “unsinkable”. The original passenger list, showing name, surname, age, nationality and class of each, sent shivers down my spine. Poor bastards.
You follow the ship’s course after it leaves Southampton on 10 April 1912 on its maiden voyage, to its first two scheduled ports of call Cherbourg, where Molly Brown boarded, and Cork, where mostly 3rd class passengers join those already on board.
You see a massive scale replica, complete with little figures and doll’s house furniture in the cabins; you hear a recording of the echoing sound of the ship’s horn, and see the actual horn itself, rescued from the sea; chairs and dishes from the dining room; reconstructions of third-class (bunks, room service, lights out at 10pm) and first-class cabins with brocade walls, and sofa and desk in the salon; one of my favourites was the deck chair (yes, used on deck) with White Star Line logo and logo-ed blanket.
But what pulls at your heartstrings are all the hand-written notes, postcards, letters from Irish, English, American, Swedish and other passengers to their families which show snapshots of their lives. Many are leaving their own countries in search of a better life in the Promised Land – the United States of America; they plan to make their fortune, and then return home. The writers of these missives never dreamed this voyage would put such an abrupt and brutal end to their plans, or a delay in the case of the lucky ones. You can see wallets, coins and watches recovered from bodies, as well as those contributed by survivors and their families.
There were three stories which really caught my imagination. The first is of the couple who were having an affair, called Harry and Kate. They bought tickets under false names – he was married; he gave her a pendant as a token of his love. Kate took the necklace when she left the ship. Harry didn’t survive, and Kate gave birth to a child on 11 January 1913 – the baby, Ellen, was probably conceived on the Titanic. The pendant Harry gave to Kate was the inspiration for Rose’s Heart of the Ocean jewel in the movie.
The founder of Macy’s and his wife were some of the more high-profile victims, while especially poignanct here in Spain were Victor and Josefa Peñasco, a wealthy young couple from Madrid who were on a one-year honeymoon. While in Paris, they decided to buy first-class tickets to New York, pre-writing postcards from the city for their butler to send to her mother so she wouldn’t worry – she was scared of boats. Victor ceded his place in a lifeboat to a woman and her child who, along with Josefa, survived. You can see Victor’s dinner jacket laid out. He was one of ten Spanish passengers on the Titanic, of whom three died.
The third story is of a third-class passenger – 75 per cent of these died, including many Scandinavians – I had no idea there were so many Norwegian and Swedish passengers on the Titanic. Four-year-old Luise Kink was travelling with her parents and aunt, and all were rescued. Luise’s little leather boots which she was wearing at the time can be seen, along with a photo of her still wearing them when she arrived in New York.
At 11.40pm the iceberg was sighted; engines were put into reverse and ship turned to port, but it was too late. The moment when the ship struck the iceberg, at 11.50pm, is described as “a slight bump, like a train pulling into a station – just a slight jerk”. Someone else tells of the ice – you can “smell a keenness in the air”. The rivets holding the plaques in the ship’s carefully designed compartments broke, and five compartments flooded. The order to abandon ship was given, SOS signals sent out by Morse code. But there weren’t enough lifeboats, and many jumped into the icy Atlantic, where survival time was 20 minutes. Most victims died of freezing rather than drowning. There’s a big chunk of ice for you to touch, to remind you how cold the water would have been.
Captain Smith stayed on the ship, as did the orchestra in first class, who carried on playing till 2.10am, to calm the panicked passengers. Regaling their audience with “Nearer My God To Thee”, they didn’t even try to escape, and the eight musicians “died at their posts”.
One of the last items of this exhibition is a list of all the dead on huge boards, so you can see the 1500-odd names. In the hundreds of third class, there are long lists with the same surname: families travelling with their children to seek a new life – many adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s with children of all ages. In first and second class, they tend to be older, aged 50 and 60-something – established, prosperous either by their own means, or through successful careers, making the journey for pleasure, in the smartest, most high-tech ship available – its most expensive staterooms, the presidential suites, cost £512 (the equivalent of 80,000 euros in today’s money).
I hope I’ve told you just enough to either pique your interest and make you go, if you can, but without revealing too much; or to entertain you, if you can’t. There are many, many more fascinating tales of the ill-fated passengers of this famous ship, as well as those who survived that fateful night. It is well worth experiencing this exhibition, which brings it so vividly to life, at first hand – I spent nearly three hours there. It made quite an impression on me, as I’m sure it will on you.
Some practical information
The audioguide (included in the entry fee) is an essential part of the exhibition, with a clearly-explained exhibit-by-exhibit commentary. It’s a little melodramatic and cliched, with the inevitable soaring orchestral music – the ship “carried the hopes and dreams of more than 2,200 people” – but then this story is all about human drama on a massive scale. I found the MP3 machines themselves a little unreliable and difficult to operate. Each display box has an information panel in both Spanish and English.
The Titanic exhibition is in the Pabellon de Navegacion, although it operates separately from the pabellon’s own permanent exhibit space, with its own entrance at the front of the building, facing the river. The exhibit is open seven days a week, from 10am to 8pm, and you can either buy tickets on the day, or – to avoid queues, especially at weekends – book online, where you get a choice of two sessions: either 10am-3pm or 4pm-8pm.
Entry costs 10 euros including audioguide (Mondays 5 euros, except holidays); 8 euros for students under 25, children aged 7-14, the unemployed and over-65s; 3 euros for children aged under 7 with audioguide, or free without audioguide. See the exhibition website for more information or to book your ticket.
This website is an excellent resource for information on all those who sailed on the Titanic, with lists of survivors and victims including their ages, professions, the fare they paid, and even which cabin they were travelling in.
There’s a cafe, in a refreshingly contemporary style with white leather-effect furniture and huge windows, and staff wearing Titanic-era white uniforms. I didn’t try the food, so I can’t vouch for it, but they have tapas and montaditos for 2.50 euros. To get to the cafe, which is at the front of the pabellon overlooking the river, you have to go up some stairs outside – not ideal if it’s raining.
In the shop you can buy all the usual kick-knacks – keyrings, Tshirts, reproduction plates; on the way into the exhibition, they take a photo of you on the gangplank (mine’s at the top of this post), which you can choose whether or not to buy when you leave – it costs 5 euros mounted in a mock-up newspaper folder. A fun, if pricey, souvenir.