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Titanic Stories: How the Titanic became an unsinkable money-spinner

A stylised depiction of the Titanic sinking with a lifeboat escaping

Titanic Movie poster © Claes-Göran Wetterholm, Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall is returning to the enduring subject of the Titanic to attempt to unravel the myths surrounding the ill-fated liner

When it sunk in the early hours of April 15 1912, killing over 1,500 passengers and crew, it was immortalised.

Its story has been thrown around for over a century, mutated and reformed to fit whichever project or agenda needs it next. There are 19 films about the Titanic, ranging from romances to Nazi propaganda. It has been the mirror-faced man of the cinematic century.

Titanic Stories, an exhibition coming to Cornwall’s National Maritime Museum in March this year, investigates the enduring appeal of the disaster, and documents its extraordinary commodification, through rare and unseen artefacts that separate fact from fiction and bring the stories of real people back from the sunken depths.

One of the most persistent images associated with the disaster is the lifeboats and the oft-quoted ‘women and children first’ rule. The museum has commissioned the construction of a 30ft replica of Lifeboat 13,  accompanied by a luggage label for each of its 55 passengers, displaying their name, age and why they were on the Titanic.

An abstract depiction of an iceberg made from monkey knots.

The monkey’s fist knots representing both the iceberg and the passengers of the Titanic © Claes-Göran Wetterholm, Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

A beach memorial. It was taken shortly after the event and mourns the dead of the Titanic

A memorial on Bournemouth beach to those who lose their lives on the Titanic. © Claes-Göran Wetterholm, Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Alongside these more dramatic spectacles will sit smaller, more intimate illustrations of the passengers and the reality of the disaster. Photographs, letters, a first-class passenger list recovered from a victim and a handkerchief waved from a departing lifeboat are all pieced together to paint a picture of the lives of those on board. It is easy to forget that over a thousand real people lost their lives in the icy waters.

This focus on reality is a central theme of the exhibition, with space dedicated to showing how the catastrophe was reported in its immediate aftermath. The Titanic was the largest ship afloat when it entered service – it’s still the second largest passenger liner currently on the sea bed – and as such attracted the world’s eye.

“Everything we know, or think we know, comes from the 706 people who left the ship in the lifeboats,” says Richard Doughty, Director of the National Maritime Museum, “Titanic Stories is a small boat story.”

‘Fake news’ was thriving at the turn of 20th century

The labels reveal that 35 of those aboard were male, with 14 females and six children – dispelling the popular myth that priority was given to women and children. The boat is being constructed in the museum’s workshop, with visitors offered the chance to view the build and quiz the boat builders prior to the unveiling on March 8.

Suspended above the lifeboat will be the infamous iceberg, now a sculpture formed of 2,208 monkey’s fist knots to represent each of the victims and the survivors.

Initial reports of the Titanic’s demise were hampered by inaccurate telegrams and disinformation. Despite sinking in the early hours of April 5th 1912 there were reports that it was progressing fine and ‘unsinkable’ on April 6th. ‘Fake news’ was thriving at the turn of 20th century and the desperate rush for any information following the disaster draws parallels to the 24/7 breaking news channels and twitter feeds of today.

“Curator Claes-Göran Wetterholm and I met on the 1994 expedition to the Titanic wreck site, retrieving artefacts from the seabed, two and a half miles underwater,” says co-Curator Eric Kentley.

“What fascinates us both is how the memory of this ship – and this ship alone – has become so ingrained in our culture, how myths have been built around it, and how each generation retells the story.”

A romanticised postcard made on April 15th 1912 Captain Smith heroically saving a child.

A romanticised postcard showing Captain Smith heroically saving a child. © Claes-Göran Wetterholm, Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

A postcard that depicts the titanic and mourns the loss of the passengers

The front of a postcard made shortly after the sinking. © Claes-Göran Wetterholm, Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

The reverse of the prior postcard. A man is showing an example of what he wants the postcards to look like so he can sell them.

The reverse of the same post card, discussing monetising the event. © Claes-Göran Wetterholm Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

The development of the Titanic myths is intrinsically linked to the commercialisation of the tragedy, which is another key facet of the exhibition. It is perhaps no great surprise that the loss of such a symbol of wealth led to even further money-making, like sharks closing in on a fallen whale.

On display will be souvenir postcards which were on sale within days of the event, as well as books and films released within weeks. Commemorative medals and memorials followed and a film was released just 29 days after a tragedy that claimed the lives of over 1500 people.

The discovery of the wreckage in September 1985 only added fresh chum to the water and a range of contemporary artefacts surrounding the discovery will also be on display in Cornwall.

“Our exhibition examines how, through a combination of commerce and myth-making, a tragedy was cleverly transformed into a triumph,” adds Kentley.

In 1943, Joseph Goebbels commissioned a propaganda piece, named ‘Titanic’, with a fictional German officer trying to save those on the boat with no help from the decadent capitalist Americans or cowardly British sailors. In 1997 James Cameron directed his $1 billion grossing account, also named ‘Titanic’, exploring the doomed class-defying romance of the cash-strapped Jack Dawson and wealthy Rose DeWitt Bukater.

A film poster for the 1943 Nazi propaganda film about the Titanic. It shows the boat sinking.

The poster for the Nazi propaganda version of ‘The Titanic’ © Claes-Göran Wetterholm. Courtesy National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Among the memorabilia from Cameron’s epic will be one of Kate Winslet’s costumes, as well as a variety of props and other pieces.

The huge variances in the way the Titanic has been exploited since the tragedy shows how it has become a modern legend. The very notion that memorabilia from a film about the Titanic can be exhibited and still draw crowds further cements its mythical standing in contemporary culture.

While the Titanic gained itself a reputation as a platform for so many kinds of stories, there is one important element that has been ignored. This is the tale of the Titanic as a story of migrants. The early 20th century saw Ocean Liner’s focus transition from emigration to aspirational travel but the Titanic  still carried a great deal of emigrants bound for New York.

A small commissioned series of portraits will be on display to show the parallels between the passengers of the Titanic and modern migration stories.

The true story of the Titanic has become almost inseparable from its innumerable cultural appropriations. It’s important to remember that it was a disaster which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 real human beings. Titanic Stories strives to not allow us to forget.

Titanic Stories exhibition is at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall from 8 March 2018 – 7 January 2019. www.nmmc.co.uk

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The multi-award winning National Maritime Museum Cornwall has 15 galleries, over five floors beautifully illustrating the past, present and future of this island nation. Silver winner of UK Heritage Attraction of the Year at the 2013 British Travel Awards, the Museum features a number of stunning exhibitions dedicated to the…

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