The lifeboat symbolizes so much. The one fact that the National Geographic Museum’s new exhibition on the R.M.S. Titanic saga doesn’t let visitors forget is its human toll: 1,496 victims and 712 survivors.
This is the dominant theme of “Titanic: 100 Year Obsession,” and one that has personal resonance for Bill Warren, a vice president of Geographic’s education foundation. His great-great grandparents, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, were passengers. His great-great grandmother survived; his great-great grandfather did not.
Seeing the lifeboat replica, he said, was moving.
The Warren family knew the details of their ancestors’ tragedy but didn’t talk about it much. Neither did Bill Warren until a few days ago. “I worked here nine years and always had mixed emotions about mentioning it until last week,” said Warren, walking through the exhibit Wednesday for the first time. He opened up, he said, “because it is part of my history and part of the DNA of my work family.”
The exhibit, which opens Thursday, deftly retells the story of the disaster and its aftermath, opening with the 3,000 workers who built the giant ship in Belfast in 1907. There’s a photograph of naval architects working on its blueprints in ties and vests, another of the workmen dwarfed by the massive ship. Again, the human element.
The exhibit combines models, artifacts and interactive elements such as a re-creation of the ship’s Marconi radio room, which famously continued to dispatch distress signals until the bitter end. Its most effective interactives, though, are reserved for the story of the ship’s discovery in 1985 by National Geographic explorer-in-residence Robert Ballard. On one table visitors can search the debris field from the perspective of an underwater photographer and find artifacts. A small gallery has a mosaic image of the ship’s sunken bow on the floor: As visitors walk on it, corresponding 3-D images of the intact bow appear.
From 1997’s Oscar-winning movie, there are items recovered from the ship — a window from the first-class lounge, a cherub-shaped light fixture — and a 20-foot model of the wreck. Director James Cameron, now himself a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, has devoted many years to underwater exploration and a section of the exhibit explains his work and fascination, including his Mariana Trench dive a few days ago.
Despite such Hollywood allusions, the exhibit’s designers keep the humanity of the tragedy sharply in focus. Exhibition text explains that for every two people who were saved, four perished. This grim statistic is illustrated by two white life jackets that hang on the wall — and four blue ones that seemingly disappear into the blue sea.
National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW. “Titanic: 100 Year Obsession,” March 29-July 8.