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When Titanic set sail from Southampton on 10 April 1912, the ship was thought to be virtually unsinkable. But five days later, it collided with an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1,500 lives.
Now hundreds of original artefacts from Titanic are going on show at The O2 in London. I had a preview of the exhibition this morning.
On entering the gallery, the first thing you see is the bell from the ship’s crow’s nest, lit up in red and accompanied by evocative music and ringing sounds. Lookout Frederick Fleet rang the bell three times on the night of the collision, with the warning “iceberg right ahead!”
In subsequent rooms, you learn about the design and construction of the Titanic, before seeing an array of passenger possessions, which are a poignant reminder of the lives lost. There are playing cards, a leather cigarette case, a toothpaste jar, and even a handkerchief that survived years under the ocean.
The exhibition gives a good feel of the ship’s interiors. There are reconstructions of first and third-class cabins and the dramatic engine room, as well as fascinating artefacts such as the bath plug from a first-class cabin, which was installed at the side of the bath so passengers didn’t have to reach into the dirty water. (The 700 third-class passengers had to share two bathtubs.)
Titanic was designed to carry cargo, hence the full title RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic, and there’s a gallery displaying the remnants of some of this cargo. Although shipping goods on Titanic was relatively expensive, traders saved on insurance costs because the ship was considered to be so safe.
As you near the end of the exhibition, the galleries become noticeably colder and darker. There’s a frosty iceberg wall, where you can feel how cold the sea was on the night of the disaster. Many of the casualties died of hyperthermia rather than drowning.
At the exhibition’s entrance, everyone receives a boarding pass with the name and details of a real Titanic passenger. At the end you can check the “memorial wall” to find out whether the person named on your card survived. The exhibition is an educational and emotional journey, and well worth a visit when it opens to the public on Friday.
Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition is at The O2 from 5 November 2010 to 1 May 2011