Monday, October 08, 2007

Titanic Exhibit



The boarding pass I held in my hand gave me second-class passage aboard the fateful White Star Line ship the R.M.S. Titanic ...

My name was Mrs. Joseph Philippe Lemercier LaRoche, also known as Juliette Lafargue. I was 22 years old and sailing in the company of my husband Joseph, and my two young daughters Simonne (aged 3) and Louise (aged 1). My family was travelling to Haiti from Paris, France on the tenth of April, 1912.

Haiti was where Joseph's family lived. Due to racial discrimination in France, Joseph, an engineer and a person of color, had been unable to find a good-paying job. In Haiti, Joseph's family was very wealthy and my husband's prospects were better.

We switched our tickets from the steamship France at the last moment because the France would not allow children to dine with their parents and we didn't want the separation at mealtime to upset our daughters...


With Juliette LaRoche's biography in my hand (every visitor was given a boarding pass with a passenger's name and history on it when entering), I wandered through the Titanic Artifact Exhibition at the B.C. Provincial Museum in Victoria, now feeling a personal connection to the people on board the doomed ship.

Would "my" family survive? I would find out when I read through the lists of survivors at the end of the exhibit. Until then, I just didn't know....


I stopped short and exclaimed when I passed a large family photo of the LaRoche's on the wall during the exhibit.

There's something so compelling about history when you can see the human faces involved!
When I was a girl of about eleven, I read a paperback copy of A Night to Remember and have been fascinated by stories of the Titanic ever since. I remember poring over the passenger lists at the back of the book, morbidly curious about the fates of the children on board who were aged like me....


The museum in Victoria held many articles retrieved from the wreck at the bottom of the ocean floor. Clothes and jewelry retrieved from amazingly preserved leather suitcases and trunks. Even paper articles survived like money, tickets, menus, and letters survived. I was amazed that perfume samples carried on board by a travelling perfumier can still be smelled! ( We were able to smell them through a glass box with air holes).


(Although microorganisms in the sea will literally eat away the huge metal ship hull in time, converting it back to metal ore, items protected by inedible leather are relatively unscathed. I learned that the calcium in the human bones that went to the bottom with the ship would have very quickly been dissolved.)


The exhibit held pieces of the Titanic itself: metal doors, port-holes, railings, giant rivets, and a decorative metal cupid---after watching an IMAX film where some of these items are painstakingly retrieved by small three-manned submersible vehicles from two and a half miles under the ocean, after seeing the strange bleak landscape where strange bug-eyed fish and creepy white crabs scuttle--it feels like I am seeing human things that have been retrieved from another planet. It's like outer space down there.


One image that sticks with me is a set of white dishes that was found stacked neatly in rows upon the sandy ocean floor. The wooden cabinet that came with them to the bottom had long since rotted away, leaving them in eerie geometry. Brought to the surface, they look white and pristine as the day they served in the Titanic's opulent dining-rooms.


The exhibit showed us like-size recreations of what the cabins on board looked like. If you were REALLY rich, (like a woman called Charlotte Drake Cardeza that Jeff's boarding pass described), you could have reserved a very, very nice first class cabin.


In fact, the Carteza entourage brought fourteen trunks, four suitcases, and three crates of baggage along. They stayed in the most expensive suite on Titanic (B-51-53-55), featuring two bedrooms, a sitting-room, and a private fifty-foot promenade.


What did a first-class one way ticket cost for this supposed one-week ride? In 1912 dollars, it was the sum of $4500, an incredible sum when you consider that in today's money that would be just under seventy-nine thousand dollars!


A third-class passenger (most likely the many new immigrants aboard seeking a new life in North America) bunked with other folks in considerably more humble quarters. (Though there are tales of passengers registering as third-class to disguise the fact that there luggage contained diamonds....)


I'm dwelling more on the physical things I saw in this post rather than the enormity of the disaster that occurred for the most part, but I want to say I couldn't help shivering with horror and empathy after touching a small man-made iceberg in this gallery and realizing that the water that the ship sank in was four degrees colder than the ice I was touching. It was so cold it felt like it burned my hand. Most of the 1500 or so people who died in this wreck did not drown; they died of hypothermia. *shivers*


The family standing behind us in the line-up as we waited to enter this exhibit had a personal connection. The older woman's grandfather had been a fifteen-year-old lad with a third-class boarding pass for the doomed shipin his hand. He got an awful feeling in his gut about the ship, strong enough that he decided the morning of the sailing not to board.


I looked at this man's great grand children and wondered if they would exist today if not for that decision. If you were a man, and even more so a third-class passenger, the odds of boarding one of the criminally- few lifeboats aboard would not have been in your favour.
One of my favourite stories about surviving the Titanic is about a man who also never made it aboard, although his luggage did. He was literally shang-haied, kidnapped and bundled away to the Far East just before boarding. The friend travelling with him figured his buddy was just being late as usual and brought his suitcases on (which were retrieved from the ocean in 1993). The fortunate victim of kidnapping escaped later and one can only imagine that he counted his lucky stars. His friend on the ship perished.


As for my family, the LaRoches? Juliette and her daughters survived. But sadly her husband did not.

13 comments:

Chloe said...

my son is fascinated by the Titanic and had gone to the exhibition when it was in Athens. He and his dad were survivors! Glad you survived to tell the tale Spider :)

Crazy Me said...

That sounds like a really cool exhibit. I wonder if it will come this way.

kimber the wolfgrrrl said...

I went to see the exhibit yesterday, and was truely impressed by how well it was executed. Fascinating, evocative and haunting.

There were also actors in costume wandering the crowds, telling their stories, too. We were directed to where the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown was speaking to a group, and when I looked at her, I realized it was a friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in years! As soon as she was finished with the visitors, she rushed through the crowd and gave me a huge hug, and we started to chatter and catch up -- my sister-in-law, who was watching from afar, said she wasn't aware that I knew so much about Molly Brown.

It turned what was meant to be a sombre exhibit into a very cheerful reunion!

Ms.L said...

Ohh that's sad:(
I so want to see that exibit but I'm running out of time it would now seem..

Nancy said...

This sounds awesome to visit. I'll have to check and see if it will be coming closer to where I live.

Thank you for the details, so very interesting.



also, thanks for paying me a visit today =)

Gnightgirl said...

This was fascinating. I have to research; hope the exhibit comes to Chicago...

Gnightgirl said...

P.S. OMG! Just checked it out, it's going to be in Vegas, the week of my first vacation in 4 years...to Vegas! I have to run and make plans!

Jocelyn said...

I'm so envious! I, too, am fascinated by the Titanic; now my 7-year-old is, too.

I love bringing stories of death to the kiddies.

Josie said...

Wow! I have always been fascinated by the Titanic as well. I once worked at the Maritime Museum in Vancouver, and the director there, Jim Delgado, (he's an underwater archaeologist) has been down to the Titanic on that little submersible. He said it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. My munchkins saw the exhibit in Victoria, and they were fascinated by the boarding passes of real people.

Pol* said...

I think its brilliant that they gave you a persona to really hit home the human element.

Steve is spellbound by all things Titanic. Luckily he got to see the exhibit with his class, he was able to participate activiely as he already knew TONNES of facts about it.

Anonymous said...

Hello friend. I'm back on blogger.

Dagoth said...

Hi Spider

Thanks for the wonderfully imaginative narrative. Living in a small town there isn't much chance that that show would come anywhere close to here, so I probably won't get to see it, but your telling really made it come to life... Come to think of it I've never even seen the movie Titanic... Am I the only one again??? darn it...

Anonymous said...

Leave the objects down there. They once belonged to the people who were killed on the ship, and taking their belongings for an attraction is sickening. I wouldn't be surprised if the Americans dig up the ship- no respect for the dead at all. Leave them to be, Im sure you wouldn't like people digging up your families graves for their objects and valuables?