A century on, the Titanic reveals some mysteries

RMS Titanic, whose life as a working ship lasted all of five days, is enjoying a robust afterlife nearly a century after crashing into an iceberg and slipping beneath the North Atlantic’s frigid waves. The supposedly impregnable vessel, lost on its maiden voyage after three confused, post-collision hours of great folly and small heroics, has spawned its own ocean of information and litigation while also charging into the popular consciousness via the 1997 James Cameron film. That a «Titanic: The Musical» can even exist says volumes about the story’s allure, if also about contemporary tastes. Ever since the barnacle-encrusted remains of the «Ship of Dreams» were spotted in 1985, some 2.5 miles (4,000 meters) below the ocean’s surface, explorers have engaged in risky search-find-remove operations to save artifacts from eventual disintegration. Seven joint US, French and Russian expeditions have taken about 130 trips down into the murk 453 miles (over 700km) off the Newfoundland coast. The overall cost is estimated by RMS Titanic Inc’s head, Arnie Geller, at 20-25 million euros ($30 million), including state-of-the-art submersibles doing the heavy lifting. Over 5,500 artifacts have been recovered so far, about 300 of which are featured in «Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibition,» opening tomorrow at Zappeion Hall after three preparatory years by Premier Exhibitions Inc and incessant lobbying by Greek entrepreneur Georgette Alithinou. Twenty-two cities have hosted it since the first display at Stockholm’s Maritime Museum over a decade ago. Interest is hardly waning; the promoters are booked through 2012, the wreck’s centennial. Tom Zaller, company vice president for exhibitions, described at Wednesday’s press conference his «unbelievable excitement and anticipation» at reaching the wreck site after a cramped descent in August 2000. The flip side of this danger-laden adventure is a hard-nosed business venture which, says Geller, has faced fierce opposition «from the day we began.» He posed the stark question: Either they «let it rot on the ocean floor» or attempt a rescue – something an original discoverer, Robert Ballard, hotly opposed. The company had to fend off over 700 insurance firms and others who regarded the work as undersea grave robbery. After years of competing claims, a 1994 federal court order gave the company exclusive recovery rights, provided the collection stay together and was not sold. Luckily, individual lawsuits were few – involving a business card and a gold pocket watch – and resolved amicably. With over $400,000 in annual conservation costs and untold legal fees, the listed company claims it broke even only last year. Big but flawed Modesty was never a Titanic virtue. The ship epitomized an era when size and opulence were priorities on competitive transatlantic sea routes in the Edwardian Age. Conceived as «the largest moving object built by man,» its sheer scale – 882 feet long, 11 stories high, with three propellers weighing nearly 100 tons, and with some three million rivets to seal 2,000 steel plates – still boggles the mind. New technologies like the Marconi Wireless and remote-controlled watertight doors were trumpeted as guarantees of safety. Lifeboat capacity was low because of airy beliefs about easy rescue by passing ships. This foolhardy assumption doomed hundreds in the early hours of April 15, 1912 (of the 2,228 aboard, over 1,500 died). Big claims still flow: The movie was Hollywood’s biggest-ever money spinner, while this exhibition is touted as the «most successful touring exhibition in history,» at 16 million visitors and counting. The exhibitors manage to evoke a sense of scale at both ends: the grandeur of the ship and the intimacy of individual lives cut short. Chunks of the steel hull, ship decor and navigation instruments are displayed, but the true poignancy is revealed in small details: address booklets with dried flowers, toothpaste jars, playing cards, a leather satchel, even a broken clarinet that likely sounded its last notes even as the ship sank. Crockery by the crateful was found intact and is also displayed. The ship’s strict division into three classes is also highlighted, from mock-ups of first- and third-class cabins to items identified as «second-class jardiniere» or «first-class creamer.» The exhibition also «relates to historical meaning» in Greece itself, according to Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis. Four young Greeks went down with the ship, including two brothers in their 20s and an 18-year-old who sold sheep to finance the costly passage. There are also displays from wrecks with Greek ties. Sister ship Britannic suffered its own early tragedy after hitting a German-laid mine in early 1916 and sinking off Kea. Two Greek-built ship disasters, the Himara and the Elli (1947 and 1940 respectively) are also highlighted; 180 artifacts from the former will soon be on display in Rafina. The Titanic’s progenitor was called the Olympic. A principal from the feature film, Greek-American actor Billy Zane, was at the opening. Though well-spaced, the displays are rather dimly lit and its labels are on the discreet side. The temperature also sinks, evoking the eerie depths until you come upon an erstwhile chunk of iceberg near the end. Some will balk at paying 10 euros, but it is a fascinating yet never gruesome voyage both back and down. One question the promoters do not – perhaps cannot – try to answer is why a century-old shipwreck remains so fixed in the cultural firmament. The disaster kick-started needed reforms in safety and communications, but that is the stuff of legislation, not imagination. Maybe the answer lies in the tragic assumption of the ship’s invincibility; hubris, after all, is an age-old subject for dramatists. The sinking symbolically ended one era – a 19th century belief in the perfectibility of man and his projects – and birthed a 20th century marked by tragedies from which we have yet to emerge. The Titanic both represents its time and offers timeless lessons. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun. noon- 7 p.m;