Visual Arts

Going Overboard

My friend Paul is, among other things, a devoted Titanic enthusiast. While other little boys were playing kickball, Paul was playing "Capsize," a game he'd invented about being trapped on a sinking luxury liner. As a teen, he spent his milk money on membership in the Titanic Historical Society; today, he reads voraciously about the "unsinkable" ocean liner, which vanished beneath the waves on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing 1,523 of its 2,228 passengers.

In recent years, relics from the Titanic, submerged for decades under miles of water, have been liberated from their resting place and are traveling the country as "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit." Important bits of the ship, like the crow's nest bell, are displayed alongside homely personal effects of long-dead passengers: trousers, eyeglasses, wrist watches, and toiletries, all of them rescued from Titanic's debris field. The show dropped anchor last week at the Arizona Science Center, where it will appear through early June.

Paul, whose bedroom is a re-creation of an ocean liner stateroom, has often tried to explain to me the allure of Titanic debris. "You can hear about a ship that sank and killed hundreds of people, but it's unfathomable," he claims. "But then you go look at a shaving kit that belonged to some guy who was supposed to be on his honeymoon but ended up freezing to death instead, and it's suddenly real."

I told Paul that I'm pretty sure I don't need to see the remains of someone's underpants in order to appreciate the gravity of what took place on the Titanic, and that I think he's just turned on by the sensational aspect of the story. "Well, it does have all the elements of any really good tragedy," he admits. "It's got history, mystery, death, opulence, even famous people. Then there's the whole sociological angle: Everyone noted how the women traveling in Titanic's first class were saved, while women in steerage were left to drown."

Paul talks a good game, but he nearly fainted when I asked him to visit the Titanic exhibit with me on the day it was being installed. While workmen hammered and painted the Titanic interiors that are the show's backdrop, we were led through the exhibit by Dik Barton, a man who, while crammed into a tiny remote-controlled submarine, has personally retrieved many of the artifacts that make up the exhibit. Paul marveled over a box of chipped stoneware, and was overcome at the sight of a mangled silver drinks tray, encased in a Lucite box on which one of the workers had set his can of Mountain Dew. I listened politely while Barton talked about the sadness that these relics evoke in everyone who sees them, because they represent lost lives and great tragedy. But it seemed sadder to me that millions of dollars have been spent to dredge this stuff up from the bottom of the ocean, only to have it used as coasters by carpenters.

There were security guards present, but none of them was around when Barton offered to show us the jewelry rescued from Titanic -- colossal diamond rings, gold stick pins and onyx cuff links -- which he kept in a Tupperware container crammed into his briefcase.

None of the jewelry was in evidence the next night at the exhibit's black-tie gala opening. At the door, guests were issued a card printed with the name of a real-life Titanic passenger and whether that person had traveled in first, second, or third class. We were told that we'd find the fates of our assumed identities listed on a billboard as we exited the exhibit. Paul was first-class doyenne Mrs. Alexander Oskar Holverson; I was W. Morris, a member of the crew. ("You're doomed!" Paul assured me, and sure enough, I discovered that crewmember Morris perished with most of the others, while Paul's Mrs. Holverson was among the first whisked away to safety, "sniffing haughtily and complaining about the cold," Paul guessed.)

While Paul and Muffet Brown, the great-granddaughter of Titanic's famous "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, compared notes on the several film interpretations of Molly (Paul favored Cloris Leachman in a cheesy 1970s TV movie called SOS Titanic, but Brown thought Leachman was "all wrong" and preferred Kathy Bates in the James Cameron version), I toured the center's gift shop, where I tried to decide which item I found most offensive. It was a toss-up between the Titanic commemorative plates and the Chunk of Actual Titanic Coal Necklace, until I spotted the Titanic Super Squishie Mondo Water Wigglie, a goo-filled polyethylene bag containing a submerged Titanic, a tiny iceberg, and a lone life preserver.

I was distracted from my game by a sparkly-gowned attendee who began shrieking at the sight of a vast section of the Titanic's hull (at 15 tons, it's the largest artifact raised from the ship's watery grave). "That's it!" I heard her holler. "That is the exact color I've been trying to describe to my decorator!" I spotted her later, huddled in a corner, surrounded by daguerreotypes of deceased Titanic passengers, hissing into a cell phone. "David, you have got to come down to this boat thing at the art museum this minute! I've found the perfect color for the downstairs powder room and you have to see it!"

Later, over cheeseburgers, Paul tried one last time to explain to me the significance of "Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibit."

"The sinking of Titanic was a huge lesson in the danger of arrogance," he said. "It's the story of how the industrial revolution made man too self-confident, and a reminder that no matter how smart we get, we're never infallible. And if you forget that, you might end up a pair of broken eyeglasses, traveling around the country in a little Lucite box."

Which, I suppose, beats being snacked on by sea urchins.