Friday, 14 January 2011

The Titanic Artefacts exhibition

Last night my fiancĂ© and I visited the Titanic Artefacts Exhibition at the O2 Bubble.  I really enjoyed the exhibition although I did find it slightly gimmicky.  The object captions are a little inconsistent presumably because the exhibition creators know more about some objects than others.  Some captions are directly linked to the exhibition and to the Titanic and explain where they were found, who they belonged to, what they can tell us about the Titanic etc, which was fascinating.  Where they presumably know less about the object, however, the exhibition creators have just tried to give a bit of historical information about the object which felt a bit disjointed and irrelevant.  One example is a series of bank notes where the interpretation explained a bit about the history of bank notes.  What I really wanted to know was where on the ship the bank notes were found, whether there's any idea who they belonged to. If this kind of information isn't available then they could at least maybe have talked about what currencies were accepted on the Titanic (presumably dollars and pounds at least but there were passengers of many different nationalities, so did they accept other currencies?) so that it was still related to the story.

The exhibition was also not terribly engaging for younger audiences.  There was little to do or touch, and the interpretation was quite wordy. 

The exhibition covers an interesting range of topics relating to the Titanic, including the class system (first, second and third class), the way the ship was built, a little about the engine rooms, an account of what happened when the Titanic hit the iceberg, and a good deal about the people on board, both survivors and people who died.  At the entrance you are given a ticket with the name of a person on board and at the end, a list of survivors and people who died is laid out by class.  This is perhaps a little tokenistic as a way of making the visitor feel involved but the way that the names were displayed was nevertheless quite poignant.  The lists were divided up into the three classes of passenger, and then divided into people who died and people who survived with numbers for each list in brackets.  It was immediately evident from this that third class passengers and the crew fared much much worse than the first and second class passengers.  By far the worst hit group in terms of deaths was the crew (I think it was over 700 who died) which says a lot about their dedication to their work.

We went at 7pm in the evening which is perhaps a bit of a strange time, but we were very struck as well by how quiet the exhibition was.  This was quite nice for us as we could enjoy it undisturbed and at our leisure, but I wonder how popular the exhibition is proving.  

What I found most interesting, however, despite all my apparently quite negative feedback so far, is that I really really enjoyed the whole exhibition and I want to explain why I think this was. 

When the Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet Titanic film came out in 1998 I suspect that few people saw it as an important learning resource about the 1912 disaster.  I, however, was an impressionable young 16-year-old on a date with my first boyfriend when I first saw it, and I'm not ashamed to say that I loved it.  I was, and remain to an extent, a sucker for romances and I was completely drawn in by the schmaltzy and no doubt factually inaccurate blockbuster.  A side result was that after watching the film, I developed an enduring interest in the Titanic which I had not had before because the engaging storyline had made it real for me and helped me relate to it. 

Walking around the exhibition last night, I found two things really striking.  One, I found myself fully engaged and interested in an otherwise not terribly engaging exhibition in a way that I seldom am.  For a museum professional, I have a surprisingly low museum-overload threshold - maybe it feels too much like a bus man's holiday!.  The 'wow factor' of seeing real objects, which I've become a bit immune to of late, maybe because I take it for granted because of my job, returned full force last night.  I felt really excited to be looking at objects that had actually been on the Titanic and which had stayed under the sea for over 70 years but were still in some cases in perfect condition.  Second - I found that a lot of the factual information, the names of the key passengers, the reasons why the Titanic sank when it was thought to be virtually unsinkable were all very familiar to me, entirely because of the film. 

This got me thinking whether there was something that I could learn from this about engaging audiences.  I imagine that many purists will be scoffing and appalled that I am waxing lyrical about a factually inaccurate Hollywood blockbuster from the late 1990s.  I know also that I was not necessarily your average teenager, and that not everyone would have been engaged by or enjoyed the film.  I believe, however, that the film ignited an interest in a historical event that still persists, and that I learnt a lot from watching and rewatching it.  I'd be interested to hear whether any museums have successfully explored creating historical fiction/feature films that engage visitors with a topic/event prior to their visit in order to bring it alive.  I think it could be a really interesting idea!

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