Elaborate, exacting re-creations of the Titanic's prow and its elegant grand staircase will be among the spectacular backdrops at the Museum of Science and Industry for the largest display ever staged of recovered artifacts from the doomed ship's watery grave.
Museum officials believe the exhibit, to open Feb. 18, may rival in popularity two of the city's most legendary blockbuster museum events, the Field Museum's 1977 Tutankhamen show and the Art Institute's 1995 Monet retrospective.
Beginning Thanksgiving Day, museum visitors will get a preview of two of the Titanic artifacts, including a badly corroded six-foot-long, two-ton bearing rod that workers will be cleaning over the next 10 months and a stack of egg plates.
When the main exhibit opens, at its core will be more than 200 artifacts plucked from the wrecked luxury liner that sank 12,460 feet into the frigid North Atlantic on its maiden voyage in 1912, 450 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
Among the artifacts are personal items from the more than 1,500 passengers and crew who died in the world's most famous marine disaster. They include pieces of luggage, wallets, calling cards, jewelry, eyeglasses and pieces of passengers' clothing and ship's crew uniforms.
It also will include dozens of items from the ship and the ship's stores, including lamps, chandeliers, a decorative brass cherub, dishes, silverware, unopened jars of olives and bottles of wine. And there will be the largest piece of the Titanic's hull ever recovered, a jagged 20-by-16-foot, 16-ton portion of steel containing portholes.
"It's probably the biggest piece of the hull that will ever be recovered from the wreck," said Joe Schacter, the museum's director of exhibit projects. "We will have to take apart an entranceway in the building just to get it inside. Certainly this is the biggest temporary exhibit we've ever staged."
Schacter said the museum had been negotiating for two years to mount the exhibit, which will run through Labor Day. The artifacts and the replicas of portions of the ship belong to New York-based RMS Titanic Inc., the salvage company that located the Titanic in 1985.
The company, which owns sole salvage rights, has recovered objects from the wreck on subsequent expeditions with deep-sea diving vehicles in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1998.
"They will have another salvage operation next summer," said Schacter, "with plans to bring objects they find then, if at all possible, directly to our exhibit."
RMS Titanic Inc. operates two permanent Titanic exhibits, one in Orlando, the other in Memphis. Neither of those exhibits is of the size and scope of the exhibit coming to Chicago, however, Schacter said.
The entrance into the exhibit, being constructed especially for the museum, is a painstaking 50-foot-high replica of the Titanic's bow, made famous in a memorable love scene in the top-grossing movie "Titanic." The prow of the ship will jut into the rotunda at the center of the museum.
The museum is expecting such big crowds it will use a system of ticketing that will pulse 450 visitors into the exhibit every half hour, Schacter said.
Each visitor will be given a ticket with a passenger or a crew member's name stamped on it. Toward the end of the exhibit will be an area memorializing the passengers and crew, where visitors will learn whether the name on their ticket was one of those who lived or died in the tragedy.
Going into the exhibit, visitors will be able to walk up an exact replica of the grand staircase of the ship's first-class lounge, constructed from blueprints used to build the original ship. The ship's blueprints also were used to reconstruct both a first- and third-class cabin, so visitors can compare them, as well as the first-class passenger's dining room, the Veranda Cafe.
"We hope to have recordings of the sounds of people filtering through the cafe area, and also aromas of the foods served," said Schacter, "so visitors will feel like they're actually in a restaurant."
The museum has injected several elements of its own into the exhibit that will enable visitors to learn some science and technology lessons as they wend their way through the displays. One will be a room depicting through scaled-down models the enormous engines and 29 three-story-high boilers that powered them. Another, darkened room will have a massive ice wall where visitors will be invited to place their hands for as long as they can withstand the cold (which will actually be 4 degrees warmer than the salt water that drowning passengers and crews died in when the ship sank).
A special section will be devoted to the Eastland disaster in Chicago in 1915, when the excursion steamer rolled over and sank in the Chicago River, killing more than 800 people.
"Because the Titanic didn't have enough lifeboats to save all its passengers and crew, stringent new maritime laws were passed," Schacter said. "The new laws indirectly caused the Eastland disaster, because, in complying with the law, the Eastland's owners had the lifeboats put on top of the vessel, making it so top-heavy it became unstable and prone to roll."
The Titanic exhibit will take up three full galleries of the museum.
"It's just enormous," Schacter said. "It's a very expensive exhibit to mount and present."
As such, the exhibit will be fairly expensive to see, too. The museum will charge $10 for adult admission and $8 for children over and above the museum's general existing admission fees of $7 for adults and $3.50 for children. Admission for children with school groups will be $4.
The museum is issuing coupons to visitors that gives them $2 discounts for advance ticketing at the bearing rod and egg plate display, which opened yesterday. The bearing rod and the egg plates are on display in the museum's Great Hall, the main entrance connected to the museum's underground parking garage.
CAPTION: The ill-fated ship's bow--a re-creation is planned as a backdrop.