Artifacts bring history’s most high-profile shipwreck to life

Arts / Article

In honor of the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, the Henry Ford Museum is hosting “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” a huge collection of pieces salvaged from the undersea remains of history’s most high-profile shipwreck. Massive in scope and rich in detail, the 10,00-square-foot exhibit takes both a historical approach and a distinctly human one. Painstaking recreations of the ship’s corridor, the central first class stairwell, and detailed facsimilies of both a first-class cabin and crew quarters provide an immediacy to the experience of the century-old conventions of cross-Atlantic travel. Even decades at the bottom of the ocean has done nothing to diminish the opulence of many of the salvaged artifacts.

Yet the hook of the exhibit is really the humanity. Waiting in line, each guest is handed a “ticket” for ship’s passage, a detailed dossier of one of Titanic’s real-life passengers. Proceeding through the exhibit, passing from the atmosphere of hope, adventure and faith in progress, through the multitude of commonplace luxuries and details of the day-to-day, and finally into the dark conclusion, one can’t help wondering, “Will I make it out alive?” A thought, no doubt, that each attendee holds in common with every soul to take that fateful voyage.

Particularly poignant is the roster at the exhibit’s conclusion, which breaks down the complete passenger list into survivors and those not so lucky, enabling you to discover the fate of your exhibit-going alter ego. While personal results may vary, the impact is undeniable, and only magnified by the breakdown between classes — those first class passengers having about 50/50 odds of survival, compared with the abysmal chances of the crew members, who lost more than 600 out of approximately 800  —totaling nearly half the casualties. Even so, I was struck by the sense of this disaster as a great equalizer — when the ship goes down, we all go with it. A fascinating exhibit and perhaps a chilling cautionary tale to a world that even a century later, seems bound full-steam-ahead to unknown ends.

“Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition” runs through September 30 at the Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd, Dearborn, MI; 313-982-6001 or 800-835-5237; thehenryford.org