Waking the ghosts of the Titanic

Denise Flint
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Visitors to Canadas West Coast have a unique opportunity to identify with the survivors and victims of the ill-fated ocean liner

This bronze cherub is thought to have graced the aft First Class Grand Staircase. Photo by Denise Flint/Special to The Telegram, and Courtesy RMS Titanic Inc.

Ive got a ticket to sail on the Titanic and Im feeling a little apprehensive about it. My name is Jennie Louise Howard and Im a 45-year-old third-class passenger from Racine, Wisconsin whos returning home after visiting family in Denmark. Its the first time my husband and I have been back in 21 years. That might be the reason behind that feeling of apprehension, which had led me to tell my brother what type of funeral I want.

At least thats what my boarding pass/admission ticket to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria says.

This summer, the museum is playing host to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, a travelling show featuring 281 artifacts recovered from the famously ill-fated ship. The exhibits are the property of RMS Titanic Inc., which holds salvor-in-possession status over the wreckage. At any one time artifacts from the companys holdings are on display in several cities. Right now, there are exhibitions running in Las Vegas, Panama City, Fla., Kiel, Germany and Toronto as well as the one in Victoria. Besides such items as dishware that survived the wreck in some quantity, each exhibition showcases a special feature. So the exhibition in Victoria is home not just to one of the iconic deck chairs, but also the cherub that graced the grand staircase in the first-class section of the ship.

However, the B.C. museum is doing more than simply showcasing a collection of relics. Its doing its best to make the artifacts, and the story of the greatest marine disaster in British history, come alive.

Hence my boarding pass. Instead of a 21st-century tourist staring with detachment at the water-stained scraps of paper and the pristine dinner services that sank under the waves 95 years ago, Ive become a passenger. As I enter the section of the museum devoted to the exhibit, Im greeted by docents in period-inspired life-jackets (do they know something I, as a new passenger, dont?) who guide me through rooms designed to recreate parts of the ship. Some are dressed as historic figures, like Capt. Edward Smith or the unsinkable Molly Brown, and as they tell their own stories while standing in front of recreations of the Titanics grand staircase or third-class passenger quarters, the past does seem to come alive.

Running in concert with the exhibit, which opened on the 95th anniversary of the sinking of the ship and runs until autumn, is the IMAX presentation Titanica, filmed during one of the first expeditions to the Titanic. The theatre is located within the museum building and the juxtaposition makes for an uncanny experience. Exiting the exhibit, one can immediately enter the theatre and I watch the discovery of the very items Ive just seen. Only this time theyre lying in the fine dust 2 1/2 miles underwater, viewed for the first time since they were tossed from the ship as it broke into two pieces and came to rest on the oceans floor.

Victorias Titanic fever has spilled well past the boundaries of the museum and infected businesses across the city, from the little harbour ferries, where questions about the famous ship are welcomed, to the mighty Empress Hotel, which is offering Titanic-themed packages for rooms and spa treatments.

One place celebrating the story of the Titanic with its own special twist is Spinnakers, Canadas oldest brewpub and something of a legend itself amongst the people of Victoria. Brewmasters at the popular watering hole came up with three specialty beers in homage to the exhibit: Titanic Stout, The Unsinkable Molly Brown Ale and Iceberg Pale Ale.

According to publican Paul Hadfield, supporting the museum only makes good business sense.

Festivals and tourism are an important part of our economy and when the museum started doing large exhibits, it stimulated tourism.

Thousands of people a day already visit the exhibit and that number is expected to increase as the summer tourist season truly gets underway. The story of the Titanic is one that everyone knows and, perhaps, has some empathy with. A lot of Canadians have ancestors who immigrated to Canada on an ocean liner mine came over on the Queen Elizabeth so its easy to imagine oneself in the shoes of the passengers. In fact, many have a personal connection to the ship. When developing the B.C. exhibit, the organizers sent out a call for any British Columbians with a connection to the Titanic and about 100 people responded.

Its almost like a badge of honour to be connected to it, marvelled Diane Dakers, the museums public relations manager.

When I get to the end of the exhibit I realize that, for me, a connection was made when I entered the museum. The final room before the inevitable gift shop is dominated by a wall on which is listed the names of everyone who sailed on the Titanics one and only voyage. Theyre divided up into crew and passengers first, second and third; male, female and child and whether they lived or died. I find myself holding my breath as I search for my or rather, Jennie Louises name. And Im surprised at the feeling of relief I feel when I discover that my/her apprehension was unfounded.

I sailed on the Titanic. And I lived to tell about it.

Residents of Newfoundland or visitors to the capital region dont have to travel to the other side of the country to learn about the Titanic. The Johnson Geo Centre is home to the permanent exhibit The Titanic Story, which takes visitors through the history of the Titanic from its planning and building stage through to the aftermath of the disaster. There are mementoes from Smith and Molly Brown, replicas of some of the items on board and three special treasures recovered from the ship itself. One unique feature of the Geo Centres exhibition is the number of props from the James Cameron film, Titanic, there on display. Fans of the story of Jack and Rose (or of the actors who played them) can drool over items they actually wore or handled.

And, unlike the show in Victoria, everyone gets out alive.

Organizations: Royal British Columbia Museum, RMS Titanic Inc., B.C. museum IMAX Johnson Geo Centre Geo Centres

Geographic location: Victoria, Canadas West Coast, Racine, Wisconsin Denmark Las Vegas Panama City Kiel Germany Toronto Canada Newfoundland

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