Friday, 27 August 2010

Fragments of the Titanic

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life.

I’ve always had a penchant for the personal when it comes to history.

The grand sweep of tumultuous events is glorious and amazing, but it never really embeds itself until I get caught up in the personal story.

I’ve held my fingers against the stones of an ancient Roman wall near the Tower of London, and thought not of Empire but of guardsmen resting for a moment in that shade.

I’ve sat on the giant blocks of stone at the base of a pyramid and thought a little about the Pharaohs, and a lot about the workers who may have paused here for water, looking up at the mighty thing they were building for the king.

Watching Ken Burns’ seminal TV series on the American Civil War had me fretting over the fates of the now long-dead individuals whose journals and letters gave us insight into the conflict.

Individual stories – of courage and venality, of love and loss – get to me every time.

The Titanic exhibition

Melbourne Museum’s Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition had the same effect. Between books, films and documentaries, I know the tragedy of the 1912 sinking of the SS Titanic well.

The grand and terrible hubris of it all. The stupidity and short sightedness of building a ship and failing to put enough life boats on it. The panic and human failings of the night, as well as the nobility and selflessness.

So I knew the big picture before stepping into one of the museum’s late Thursday night sessions – and the exhibition’s creators knew that I would.

They also knew it’s through personal stories that we experience the greatest impact. So, on arriving at the exhibit, visitors are given a boarding card which contains information about a real person who travelled on the Titanic. You learn a little of their story, their friends and family - but not their fate (yet).

The exhibit is excellent at helping you identify with your passenger. It starts with excitement at the creation of the largest, most luxurious liner ever, in an era where faith in technology was at its height.

Heading toward disaster

However, because we already know how the story ends, there are notes of foreboding. An early caption outlines the decision to have only the 16 lifeboats required by law, rather than the 36 boats that would have been enough to save everyone on board; and there are quotes displayed about how unthinkable it was that such a ship could ever sink.

The artefacts retrieved from the depths range from the objectively curious to the subjectively distressing. The rivets used to fix the massive plates to the ship are like the Titanic’s bones on display; but a stained and damaged steward’s jacket is a painful reminder of the man who once wore it.

After learning about the construction and launch of the Titanic, we turn into a darker corridor. The room’s temperature literally drops, and we follow that awful morning when the ship strikes an iceberg, and begins to sink.

There are quotes on the walls from survivors - or they may be the words of victims, reported by survivors - about that terrifying time. I look for my passenger – Mrs Emma Bucknell – while Tim searches for his, the unlikely-sounding champion fencer Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon.

Other people’s stories are displayed on boards, some about women who showed great courage and skill in getting their lifeboats to safety, and keeping spirits up during the long hours before rescue.

Personal stories of survivors and victims

Display cabinets contain personal items that had one belonged to passengers, retrieved from the depths. Tears are pricking at my eyes at the evidence of interrupted lives, and there’s a sense of relief that one set of items come from a man whose luggage made it aboard, although he didn’t. I wonder whether these items are a valuable historic resource or a macabre display for ghoulish curiosity, then realise that they’re both.

Finally I see the board listing the names of all the passengers and crew, split into survivors and those who perished at sea. I find Mrs Bucknell and discover she survived (and so did Sir Cosmo, more surprisingly).

I also think of other Titanic lives I’ve learned about tonight. The woman who stayed to die with her husband; the baby who grew up not realising that she was a survivor of the famous sinking which had killed her father; the boys in the boiler room; and the famous band that played on the decks while the passengers tried to escape.

I’m glad that their names are not forgotten.

Narrelle M Harris visited Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition courtesy of Museum Victoria. The exhibition continues at Melbourne Museum, Nicholson Street, Carlton, until 17 October 2010.

You can find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other published work.