The artefact exhibition
review by Andrea Witcomb
Melbourne Museum's current Winter Masterpiece exhibition, Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition, is a blockbuster which uses the art of contemporary exhibition making, particularly the ability to provide a range of sensory experiences, to achieve a complex narrative full of tensions and contradictions, many of them deeply buried within the exhibition's aesthetic and sensory interpretation strategies. Here I want to draw out two of these narratives. The first is the explicit narrative that provides the dramatic impetus of the show, namely the tension between the naïve faith at the time of the sinking in technological progress and the knowledge that a simple iceberg destroyed that naivety and with it well over a thousand lives. The second narrative is far more subtly produced but supports a gigantic commercial machine by proposing that modern technological knowhow makes it possible to honour the memories of those who suffered and died that cold night in 1912 through the retrieval, conservation and display of objects that once belonged to them. Clothed in a narrative of memorialisation, this exhibition, and no doubt the seven other versions of it currently travelling the world, is adept at reinvesting our faith in technological progress and its desirability. Such faith supports what has become a profitable business for the company that has used that technology and fought in court for the exclusive rights to the archaeological material and its display: RMS Titanic Inc. and its owner, Premier Exhibitions Inc.

Briefly put, this exhibition is the story of the making of Titanic, its sumptuous interiors, the people who travelled on it and the tragedy of its sinking. This is followed by the story of the discovery of its location, the process of recovering and conserving the artefacts and the memorialising aims of that effort, a memorial gallery where it is possible to find out whether the passenger whose card you were given at the beginning survived or not; and, finally, a little display on passengers and crew with an Australian connection and their fate. This is followed by the inevitable exhibition shop where it is possible to get replicas of various personal items carried on board — mainly jewellery — as well as replicas of the third class blankets and first and third class dinner sets.

It is the emotional trajectory of the exhibition, however, and how this is achieved, that is of interest to this reviewer, as it is this trajectory that underpins the exhibition makers' ability to defend their existence and institutional aims. Given that the story is so well known and so many people already have an emotional investment in it (much of it thanks to the blockbuster film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), it is interesting to analyse what this exhibition can and does contribute to the cultural phenomenon that the Titanic story has become, as well as what it does not.

Essentially, the exhibition works through a series of sensory contrasts, using music, different levels of light, changing temperatures and the contrast between sumptuous recreations and the fragility of recovered objects, to achieve an emotional narrative. By these means, it becomes possible for visitors to imaginatively inhabit the persona of a passenger whose identity is given to them as they 'board' the boat and enter the exhibition. The narrative also enables visitors to inhabit a memorial space in which it becomes difficult to ask questions about the aims of the exhibition. The audience, and that is really what we are, as we are carried on a cinematic light and sound experience, is placed in Ireland at the beginning of the exhibition by a soundscape of traditional Irish music. Upbeat in feel, it captures the working class nature of the men who built the ship, reinforces the optimism of the period, the faith in technology that lay behind the design and construction process, and the dreams of the White Star Company who built the ship to dominate the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade. The large scale black and white photographs of the shipyard, the ship itself in different stages of construction, and the men who financed, designed and built it, together with a few small pieces from the ship itself, help tell the story. These are supported by the industrial nature of the exhibition space, with its hard wooden floors and black industrial-looking walls. This section of the exhibition provides great opportunities for inter-generational conversations as grandfathers happily explain to their grandsons the intricacies of building a ship, while others excitedly look at their boarding cards to find out who they are, willing to participate in the game to be a passenger on board this most famous of ships.

This sense of playing a game continues into the next space as we are led along a gangplank into the upper first class deck. This is the space for 'oohs' and 'aahs' as we are led from one reproduction of the luxurious interior to another. The sets are brightly lit, softly and richly carpeted, full of mahogany and cedar reproductions, and marble and brass and crystal chandeliers. We gaze in wonder at the splendour of the ship and those rich enough to pay for it, while listening to the strains of Strauss's Blue Danube waltz. Amid the sumptuous reproduction of the ship's interior spaces, such as the grand staircase, the Verandah café and a first class suite, small vitrines hold a range of artefacts recovered from the sea bed. This provokes a different kind of 'ooh aah' experience — that of wonder that such objects survived in the first place, followed by the realisation that they once belonged to someone. As one child put it to his mother, 'Is that really real Mum? Did it really come from the ship?'; while another visitor I overheard, this time a young adult, said, 'Someone's boot. Just imagine, someone wore that!' The contrast between the sumptuous reproductions and the fragility of the objects on display, as well as their ephemeral and everyday nature, makes for an experience of wonder that serves to heighten the emotional encounter with the moment in which such splendour and the dreams and aspirations of the voyagers came to a sudden halt.

As we continue our tour deep into the ship, along a narrower passage and past a third class cabin recreation, the ambience changes. The lighting gets darker; the strains of the Strauss waltz disappear, replaced by the throbbing of the engine. As the temperature noticeably cools, the mood of the audience changes to one of apprehension. At the end of the passage we arrive in the ship's boiler room which, instead of hot and smelly, is dark and cold, as we hear of how the men reacted to Titanic's encounter with an iceberg. We emerge into a cold dark room, against which a large sheet of ice masquerading as the iceberg is dramatically lit against a black, starry night. The soundscape is appropriately sombre and quiet. There, largely in silence, in stark contrast to the first class recreations, where lively chatter was the order of the day, we encounter the drama of that terrible night — the life and death decisions people made to remain together or separate from one another, the realisation that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone, and a few eyewitness descriptions of the moment in which Titanic sank with over a thousand people still on board. A silent digital recreation of the moment of the sinking, in which the ship broke into two, completes the picture. Visitors watch in horrified silence.

Suitably chastened into a recognition of the power of nature against human greed and unquestioning faith in technology, the exhibition moves on towards the redemptive aspect of its narrative strategy: that modern-day technology enables us to appropriately memorialise the tragedy by salvaging, conserving and displaying items from the wreck site. Without a hint that such a narrative stands in contradiction to the critique in the faith in technology we have just experienced, or, as Marcus Westbury has argued, any admission of the debates that have occurred over the ethics of such an enterprise, RMS Titanic Inc goes on to articulate a positive narrative around its own role in the memorialisation of the tragedy. This is a role that, as they describe it, requires courage and a sense of moral duty, as well as technical expertise and the use of modern technology. As one looks around at these precious fragments from the ship, in wonder not only at their survival but at their very presence in front of our eyes, the 'company's goal' to 'preserve and display these objects in memory of those who perished aboard Titanic' seems not only worthwhile but necessary, given that the ship is slowly disintegrating due to the action of metal-eating bacteria.

The exhibition ends with a memorial gallery where one can find out what happened to each and every passenger and crew member, as well as some of the personal stories of those on board. These include the last survivor, Elizabeth Gladys Dean, a third class child who survived along with her mother and brother but whose father died. Millvina, as she was known, died in 2008 and the exhibition is dedicated to her memory. As we walk out through a small corridor, there are some panels accompanying the display of a few ephemeral objects from the shipwreck site, which link its story to the stories of a small number of Australians on board as passengers and crew. We come out into the bright glare of the shop, where we can purchase photos of ourselves taken as we enter the exhibition and later, on the grand staircase, as well as object replicas. If we had not already appreciated that the exhibition was a marketing exercise, intended to fund and rationalise the company's salvaging activities — and make a profit — it becomes clear here. Not that this realisation has had any impact on people's desire to purchase: a quick scan on the web reveals that many visitors have come to this exhibition at other venues just to purchase and collect that first class dinner setting or the third class blanket. These days, Titanic mania includes the collecting of exhibition merchandise.

One of the prices for purchasing a 'package blockbuster' such as this one was the inability of Melbourne Museum staff to add value in the way that it clearly did for last year's Winter Masterpiece, Pompeii. In that exhibition Melbourne Museum had a strong role to play, particularly in the creation of the multimedia components, which added depth and narrative to the exhibition experience. Its own expertise in archaeology as well as multimedia played a role. In this exhibition, its contribution is limited to two panels situating the disaster in time by giving an impression of Melbourne in 1912, which provides further evidence of the faith in modern technology and sense of optimism that supported the luxurious and profitable trans-Atlantic trade. Apart from these panels, the Museum was unable to extend the exhibition's content or refine its message.

The price for this is high. As another reviewer of this exhibition pointed out, in this case of the version shown in New York's Discovery Times Square Exposition, this is not an exhibition that would normally be associated with the high scholarly standards of museum productions. In this case, as Edward Rothstein points out, there is no attempt to provide a wider context and go beyond the formulaic account of the disaster. 'There is', he says, 'no exploration of the cause of the Titanic's failure, barely a hint of the difficulties of that night's rescue and only a cursory nod at the event's impact. There is little here that will challenge preconceptions or offer reinterpretations. It is, in other words, a package: effective, intriguing, but stopping short of what the best museums might demand'. To this I would add that there is no open discussion on the desirability of salvaging these objects in the first place. We are encouraged to wonder at the capability and achievement of the technology, but not to question the propriety of using it.

In the end, this exhibition represents a good day's social outing, an opportunity to experience an emotional rollercoaster with a redemptive ending, an insight into the importance of social class (including its importance to who survived and who did not) and a great shopping experience. Along the way, it has increased the numbers through Melbourne Museum and provided a boost to Victoria's tourist economy during winter, all worthwhile aims. It does not however, represent best practice in the representation of history or, more worryingly, stimulate visitors to think about the politics of collecting.
Andrea Witcomb is an associate professor at the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University, Melbourne.
1 Marcus Westbury, 'Do blockbuster exhibitions dumb down history for entertainment?' The Age, 24 May 2010, p. 19.
2 Edward Rothstein, 'Relics from the deep and the dawn of man', New York Times, 25 June 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/06/26/arts/design/26discovery.html, accessed 23/9/10.

Exhibition: Titanic: The artefact exhibition
Institution: Melbourne Museum
Dates: 14 May 2010 – 7 November 2010