Last Saturday, I had the privilege of finally visiting the Titanic Exhibit in San Diego. I thought it was a traveling exhibit, since there was one in Las Vegas last year and this one is only here until September. However, I found out later that there are several exhibits across America.
When you first enter, a costumed guide hands you a replica of a boarding pass, complete with a real passenger’s name and a brief story about them. My passenger was Mrs. Elin Matilda Hakkarainen, traveling in third class with her husband. Originally from Finland, she had worked as a servant in Massachusetts before, returned to Finland to marry her husband, and then was returning to America on the Titanic to flee the Russian Army. (Her full story can be found here.)
The exhibit is nothing short of fascinating. There are several rooms full of artifacts lifted from the shipwreck 12,000 feet below the North Atlantic surface, recreated props of rooms and areas aboard the ship, and informational signboards explaining how the ship was built, what life was like onboard, and how each of the three classes of passengers lived.
Walking through the simulations of dining rooms, decks, and actor models in era-appropriate costumes, I could start to imagine what life was like aboard the luxury liner. My great-great grandfather sailed on the Titanic in 2nd class, after a fateful series of events that transferred him twice from his original ship. He perished that night, and generational stories in my family tell that he led groups of prayer while it was sinking. I like to imagine him on the deck, amidst chaos and panic, praying to his Lord and trying to keep his fellow passengers calm. Another story tells that he gave up his seat in a lifeboat for a woman and her child.
I soaked up every artifact, every tidbit, allowing myself to fathom the realization that these otherwise plain objects belonged to real people who lived 100 years ago, plunged into the ocean with the most famous ocean liner in history, lay at the bottom of the North Atlantic for 90+ years before they were resurrected, and were now sitting in glass cases inches from my own fingers. Thinking about it that way made the steep $27 admission fee completely worth it. (Although I technically have nothing to complain about, since the ticket was a gift from my grandmother.)
I reached the room explaining the ship’s “death” far too quickly. Dim blue lights recreate a dark, frigid night, while ominous plaques read the words, “Iceberg right ahead!” I didn’t realize the Titanic received no less than three separate warnings from fellow ships about icebergs that day, including the Californian – which was literally stuck in a giant floating patch of ice that afternoon.
A video plays a simulation of the ship’s sinking and how it broke in half, then follows the descent down to the ocean floor. At the far side of the room, an enormous block of ice sits, beckoning you to touch it. The kicker, however, is the sign next to the ice stating that because of the salt, the water could not freeze – and therefore, the ocean was colder that night than the ice you are touching. Talk about mind-blowing.
In the next room, there are sad stories of notable passengers, including the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and a woman in third class whose baby was wrenched from her arms and thrown into a lifeboat while the ship was sinking. She had to wait out the entire night to be reunited with him, but they both survived. (Coincidentally, my friend had her boarding pass.)
The final room features a giant signboard listing all of the passengers on the ship, separated by class and “Survived” or “Lost.” I found Mrs. Hakkarainen in the third-class list, and was happy to see that she survived – though her young husband perished. I then moved on to the second-class “lost” list, searching for my great-great grandfather. Even though I know his story, it was spine-tingling to see the name “Thomas Francis Myles” halfway down the list and bold as day.
I left feeling partly impressed, partly sad, and completely moved. Though smaller than I expected, the exhibit is beautifully done with a perfect blend of fact and emotion – and pays honorable tribute to one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. I urge all of you to pay it a visit while it is still here.