Human element vividly recreated

Times Art Critic

ST. PETERSBURG -- A wadded ball of fabric, submerged two and a half miles below the sea near the decaying hull of the Titanic, would have been easy to ignore.

But a crewman from the Nautile, the vessel that recovered many of the doomed ship's artifacts, scooped it up and brought it to the surface. Now, treated and conserved , thread by thread, it is an integral part of the story of "Titanic: The Exhibition," opening today at the Florida International Museum in downtown St. Petersburg.

The garment is a steward's jacket, the name of its wearer, Athol Broome, still visible, bringing to the viewer the human element that makes the Titanic's gripping story speak to everyone.

And it does so, not with the glossy facade of a theme park attraction, but with an aim to speak with reverence, accuracy and poignancy. Where are all those glamourous new gowns that the first class ladies wore, a different one each evening? Surely they, too, went down to the bottom of the sea. But RMS Titanic, Inc., which holds salvage rights to the ship, has left the hull and its contents intact. What you see are only objects retrieved from the ocean floor.

The exhibit's story tells of a watershed event in this century. Its great underlying theme is social history. Never again would America's rich move so securely in the upper class. In 1912, when the ship went down after hitting an iceberg, Communist nations, world wars and the constitutionality of income tax did not exist, but all would come into being in the next five years.

As with other exhibits, the show begins with a video of vintage slides and is accompanied by an audio guide narrated by Malcolm McDowell, with music ranging from ragtime to classics to doom-and-gloom. Lighting and decorative effects, artifacts from the wreck site and others from private collections further contribute to a mood that shifts with the story.

From the slide show, the viewer exits to a scale model of the front half of the ship as it is today in the blackness of the ocean's depths, slowly being eaten away by micro-organisms. The Titanic split in half as it sank; the stern lies 650 yards away. The viewer can walk around the entire model while listening to the audio, which will relieve the usual problem of overcrowding around the first object on display. On the far wall is a full-size replica of one of the ship's propellers, to give an idea of the size of what was then the largest ship afloat.

From there the viewer is transported to the next gallery amid sound effects of the Gilded Age, the Age of Innocence, an era of optimism. Technological advances had culminated in a magnificent floating hotel, pronounced "unsinkable." The ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, hoped to set a speed record with a transatlantic crossing on its initial voyage.

A wood deck, furnished with seats that had been intended for the Titanic but were removed before the voyage, leads to the Verandah Cafe, its walls trimmed with white lattices, its floor lined with a chic new floor covering called linoleum.

Glass and china are imprinted with the White Star line logo. Though all wood was destroyed, glass bottles carrying everything from olives to champagne were well-preserved.There are photos, jewelry, wash basins, a pen, a lamp, slippers and eyeglasses. A bracelet, the name "Amy" spelled out in gemstones, has never been claimed.

A television monitor offers a simulated walking tour of the ship. It adds little to the tour and can interrupt the mood. Better insights into life aboard are in the exhibition catalog. There were Turkish and electric baths, an indoor swimming pool and a gymnasium, a barber shop, a library and daily concerts. Menus, amenities and access varied with class. Gambling was prohibited. Transoceanic crossings, with no ports of call or scenery for days on end, can be boring.

The galleries darken as the tragedy unfolds, and those aboard come to grips with their fate. Here, the human element -- through actual radio tapes, character voices on the audio and plaques on the walls -- tell how individuals responded, with courage, despair, cowardice, dignity and resignation. The doomed band played ragtime. Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet exchanged their life jackets for formal evening wear.

Of 2,228 passengers and crew, 1,523 would be lost.

A recreation of the Titanic's wooden deck, with portals, benches and rails, is just ahead. The sky has been painted exactly as it was that night, filled with stars that we can rarely see. It can be a spiritual experience; if you shed a tear or feel a lump in your throat, you are not alone.

The remaining galleries bring us back to reality, telling us of the Carpathia, which picked up survivors; of the books, movies and shows spawned by the disaster; quotes from those who survived and perished, etched into glass beneath their likenesses; and finally, a list of all those aboard, distinguished not by whether they traveled in luxury or in steerage, but by whether they lived or died.

As with the past shows, you must still exit through the gift shop, but the ambiance there is less tacky than it used to be.

The show is a simulated experience, not an art exhibit. The recovered artifacts, despite their good condition for having been waterlogged for most of the century, despite the fact that they were recovered at all, lack the intrinsic cultural value of, say, Egyptian urns with gods' heads or a lavish burial wreath ; forget the fact that the latter is gold. And you won't see anything approaching the monetary or historical value of the statue of pudgy Hemiunu, or the pebble mosaic of Alexander hunting a lion. As for the decorative objects, you can find similar pieces in better condition in antique shops. They are here to move the story along.

Though the objects are lesser, the appeal is broader. The elitist nature of many art shows is not present. More than a mere a chronicle of the history of social change, "Titanic: The Exhibition" appeals to all levels with a sensitivity unknown 85 years ago.

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