“A Night to Remember,” as Titanic chronicler Walter Lord called the ship’s sinking, remains so 100 years after the disaster on April 15, 1912. The Titanic centenary is spawning a wave of observances, exhibitions, movie and television releases and museum openings, along with a revival of reflections on how the biggest and most sophisticated passenger ship of its day could hit an iceberg and sink five days into its maiden voyage, with the loss of more than 1,500 passengers and crew.
RMS Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. 375 miles southeast of Newfoundland and sank 2 hours, 40 minutes later. Slightly more than 700 survived the sinking with the help of the Cunard liner Carpathia, whose crew rescued them from lifeboats. Widely thought an unsinkable engineering marvel, Titanic became tragic proof of Robert Burns’ observation that the best-laid schemes of mice and men go astray.
Among the most lavish remembrances of the disaster: Two passenger ships, both operated by Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, whose parent company, Harland & Wolff, built the Titanic, were scheduled to stop over the wreck site April 15 for a memorial ceremony starting at 11:40 p.m. The 715-foot Balmoral was to depart April 8 from Southampton, England, with 1,309 paying passengers, stop at the wreck site, then go on to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and New York.
The 592-foot Azamara Journey was to leave April 10 from New York with 694 passengers, put in at Halifax, reach the wreck site April 14 and return to New York four days later.
“Cruise passengers will be able to mix with fellow enthusiasts, Titanic historians and those with a personal interest in the events of 1912,” says the cruise promo. The initial fare for one passage from Southampton started at $4,000.
“How do you pay respect to those that died?” asks Mary Kellogg, who with husband and Titanic explorer John Joslyn owns the Titanic Museum Attractions in Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “It is simply to tell their stories.”
If there is one distinctive characteristic of the centenary observances it is the wealth of stories they tell. The Titanic disaster must be one of the most thoroughly researched events in history. The museum exhibits, movie and television releases, musical tributes, lectures, Titanic cruises — they all tell stories. They tell stories about the passengers, the crew, the ship and its construction, its owners and designers and engineers, the shipyard and its workers, and the social and political context of this “ship of dreams.”
The museums in Branson and Pigeon Forge, which have among the largest permanent collections of Titanic artifacts and memorabilia — including a $1 million replica of Titanic’s grand staircase and replicated hallways, parlors and cabins — were planning “A Night to Remember: An Original Musical Tribute to Titanic” the night of April 14, as well as ongoing exhibits of a Survivors Wall of Stories, with details of the life of each survivor after the disaster. “It took two years and many researchers working with other researchers around the country to compile this information,” Kellogg says.
James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic” was being rereleased in 3-D on April 4. Titanic Pigeon Forge is launching an exclusive behind-the-scenes exhibit that follows the film’s Jack-and-Rose story — on the set from the director’s chair. It also will feature props, costumes, scripts and other collectibles from the film.
Fifteen new books about the Titanic have been or will be published this year, according to Megan Hahn Fraser, a UCLA Library special collections librarian, in an article on Titanic literature. The offerings range from explorations of the world of the privileged first-class passengers (“Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic, Her Passengers and Their World,” Hugh Brewster, Crown) to survivor accounts (“Titanic, First Accounts,” Tim Maltin, Penguin) and a discussion of technical aspects of the sinking, including the role of Morse code and wireless telegraphy in the rescue effort (“Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner,” John Maxtone-Graham, Norton).
The Branson and Pigeon Forge museums have been hosting book signings by Titanic authors and were giving visitors rose petals to place in a memorial case that the Coast Guard Ice Patrol planned to scatter at sea April 10 at the Titanic wreck site. Many cities with a direct — or even tangential — connection to Titanic were planning centenary activities. The most ambitious of these is the March 31 opening of Belfast, Ireland’s $152 million Titanic Belfast museum with a two-month festival of events — light shows; music tributes; art, photography and artifact displays; film viewings; lectures; boat, bike and walking tours; and operas and theatrical productions.
The museum, an anchor of Belfast’s 7,500-acre Titanic Quarter harbor-front redevelopment, faces the slipways of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built Titanic and launched her into the River Lagan. From there, she steamed to Southampton for the start of her maiden voyage. The museum — six floors with nine galleries of interactive exhibits, including a ride that re-creates a trip through the 1911 shipyard — features special effects, dark rides, full-scale reconstructions and live video of the sunken ship.
Southampton, Titanic’s port of embarkation, planned to open its new Seacity Museum on April 10 with a focus on Titanic’s crew. Five-hundred-forty-nine Southampton residents, most of them serving in the Merchant Navy, died on Titanic. The museum will have a 1-to-25 scale interactive model of the ship, a Disaster Room telling the story of the sinking and a 1930s courtroom depicting the inquiry held in London after the disaster. The city also will host Titanic-related events in March and April, including lectures on icebergs, a “grave walk” of 45 cemetery memorials to Titanic victims, a commemorative church service and the annual convention of the British Titanic Society.
In Addergoole, Ireland, which lost 11 of its citizens — emigrants to the United States — in the sinking, St. Patrick’s Church is adding two stained-glass windows. One depicts a lifeboat being lowered into the water as Addergoole native Annie Kate Kelly, who was in the boat, remembers it, and another commemorating the long history of Irish emigration by ship to the United States.
At Cobh, Ireland, formerly known as Queenstown, tenders picked up provisions, mail and 123 passengers for transfer to the Titanic while it was anchored in nearby Cork Harbor before its Atlantic crossing. Cobh has opened an exhibit, the Titanic Experience Cobh, in the former offices of the White Star Line, which owned Titanic and operated the tenders. Visitors go through the boarding process at the old White Star office and hear and see the Titanic story through interactive media, holograms and touch screens.
Liverpool, England, where Titanic was registered, has opened an exhibit at its Merseyside Maritime Museum. Liverpool also claims many Titanic crewmembers as its own, as well as some of its designers and businesses that contracted with the White Star Line.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 150 unclaimed bodies are buried, planned a solemn procession, a three-hour musical memorial and the ringing of church bells at midnight in an observance on the night of April 14. White Star Line contracted the Halifax-based cable ships Mackay-Bennett and Minia to search for the bodies.
At least two British-made television miniseries on the Titanic were scheduled for airing in the U.K. in April: ITV’s “Titanic,” a four-part series written by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, is mainly about the passengers in the ship’s second- and third-class sections. The 12-part “Titanic: Blood and Steel” explores the social, economic and political backdrop to the ship’s conception and construction. U.S. air times have not been published.
While interest in Titanic is at a fever pitch, RMS Titanic Inc., a division of Premier Exhibitions, which has owned salvage rights to Titanic for the last 18 years, announced that 5,500 artifacts recovered from the wreck, video footage of the ship and salvage, maps of the wreck site and maybe salvage rights to the wreck itself will be up for auction through Guernsey’s Auction House in New York. Deadline for bids is April 2 for a collection that was appraised in 2007 at $189 million, Guernsey’s says.
All the hoopla shows that this “100-year-old story still haunts people to this day,” Kellogg says. She hopes that visitors to her museum and others will leave with a “new appreciation of Titanic and the men, women and children who were on board.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.