What Lies Beneath

National Geographic examines the Titanic’s legacy through sonar and cinematic artifacts

April 19, 2012
An interactive display of the Titanic’s wreck site allows visitors to compare the intact ship to the remains that now rest on the ocean floor.

Since the moment the R.M.S. Titanic’s steel hull made contact with an iceberg, Americans have been obsessed with the ill-fated ocean liner. Decades worth of books, movies and even musicals have imagined the scenes that unfolded as 1,500 passengers lost their lives on April 15, 1912, in the frigid Atlantic.

But for the past 15 years, James Cameron’s version of the story has been the dominant one. His 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, just topped a whopping $2 billion in international grosses, thanks to its rerelease in 3-D this month. Cameron brought the disaster to the screen in a way that still resonates. So, it makes sense that a new National Geographic exhibit about the Titanic, tied to this week’s 100th anniversary of its sinking, combines Hollywood with history.

“[Pop-culture tie-ins are] a vehicle for us to set the tone, mood, feeling and texture of the exhibit,” says Richard McWalters, the director of the National Geographic museum’s “Titanic: 100 Year Obsession,” which runs through July 8. “We also wanted to tell the [true] story in much more depth than we had in the past. Everybody knows the Titanic story, but they forget just how powerful it was, how grand and epic the scale of the ship was.”

The interactive exhibit examines the “ship of dreams” — a behemoth in size as well as in the scope of its amenities — before the disaster. The ship’s electric elevators were considered state-of-the-art, as was its Marconi radio room, where operators eventually sent out some of the world’s first S.O.S. dispatches. News headlines about the ship’s sinking, posted on walls — “Her Side Ripped as By Giant Can Opener,” one headline reads — are still chilling. A second segment displays film, photos, charts and maps about the shipwreck, along with new images that reveal the remains in greater detail than ever before, thanks to sonar imaging.

There are no real artifacts from the ship itself on display, but set pieces from Cameron’s film are treated almost as historical objects themselves: Among the items on view are pre- and post-sinking models of a cherub light fixture and a porthole featured prominently in a scene in which DiCaprio is handcuffed to the sinking ship.

Seeing the prop life vests and a lifeboat was emotional for Bill Warren, a descendent of Titanic travelers who is also the vice president of foundation relations at National Geographic. His great-great-grandparents Anna Sophia and Frank Manley Warren were aboard the ship, traveling home to the U.S. after a trip to Europe to celebrate their 40th anniversary. They were awakened by the ship’s scrape against the iceberg. In the scramble, Frank helped his wife into a lifeboat.

“You picture what it must have been like, and what she must have been feeling and how scared she must have been,” Warren says, glancing toward the life-size replica. “It just basically filled me with a lot of unease.”

In the darkness, Warren says, his great-great-grandmother was unaware that her husband never made it into her boat, until she heard his name called — and no response.

The Titanic Around Town

Women’s Titanic Memorial: Overlooked by many Washingtonians, this 18-foot-tall sculpture at 4th and P streets SW predates a certain famous scene in a certain famous James Cameron film. The memorial was given by a group of women in 1931 to honor the “brave men” who “gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”

‘Fire & Ice’: The Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s “Fire & Ice” exhibit, on view through Jan. 6, draws parallels between the tragedies of the Titanic and the Hindenberg, a German airship that exploded 75 years ago in New Jersey. Both vessels operated as mobile post offices — the R.M.S. in Titanic’s full name stood for “Royal Mail Steamer.” Mail sent from Titanic passengers at European ports prior to the transatlantic crossing is on view, along with keys from the Titanic’s post office.

National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, through July 8, $8; 202-857-7700. (Farragut North) 
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