FROM THE LUXURIOUS Titanic to tiny barges, boats dominate two exhibitions at Richmond museums. Families can learn about the "unsinkable" ship at "Titanic Science: The Real Artifacts, the True Stories" at the Science Museum of Virginia and enjoy "James River Waterplay" at the nearby Children's Museum of Richmond. And there's seasonal cheer, too, with holiday exhibits at both museums.
On view through Jan. 5, the interactive Titanic exhibition has been drawing record crowds since its October opening. (Advance tickets for specific dates and times are required for entry.) Along with the IMAX film "Titanica" and short play "Unsinkable? Unthinkable!," the exhibition brings together science and history to tell what happened on April 14, 1912, when the great ship struck an iceberg -- and took 1,522 passengers and crew to a watery grave.
But the story doesn't end there. The exhibition also explores the 1985 discovery and subsequent recovery of the wreck 2.5 miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. More than 100 artifacts are on display, including a delicate china demitasse in perfect condition and a man's houndstooth suit.
The 8,000-square-foot exhibition is fascinating to all ages, as witnessed by my extended family group of three children, three parents and two grandparents on a recent Saturday. At the entrance, we each were issued a boarding pass with the name of a Titanic crew member or passenger -- and learned this person's fate by scanning the memory wall at the exit.
Our first stop was a 4 1/2-foot model of the 882-foot-long ship about to embark on its maiden voyage. We admired its teeny deck chairs and read a partial list of supplies: 36,000 oranges, 45,000 napkins. The three youngsters in my group (ages 4 to 8) were especially intrigued by the imitation, touchable iceberg. They also enjoyed learning about boat design by playing with small ships in several water tubs. Around us, kids and adults turned a captain's wheel to try to steer clear of a computerized iceberg and manipulated a contemporary ROV (remotely operated vehicle) used to explore shipwrecks. We ended our visit by walking through a simulated portion of the sunken Titanic, slowly being destroyed by rusticles (colonies of bacteria and fungi).
A wall of photos and stories and a video of survivors' testimonies focus on the human drama. Here is Benjamin Guggenheim, one of 10 millionaires in first class, who declared: "We're dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen." Like numerous immigrants in third class, the Swedish Andersson family hoped for a better life in the New World -- but perished. The indomitable Violet Jessop, a stewardess and nurse, survived the sinking of the Titanic -- and two other ocean liners.
What exactly brought the great ship down? The exhibition highlights a theory based on recent research. The iceberg seems not to have torn into the Titanic, as previously thought. Instead, its impact exerted tremendous pressure on the ship's 3 million rivets. Many could not hold and water began to flood through. The ship sank in less than three hours.
From the Science Museum, we walked to the neighboring Children's Museum to glimpse construction on the permanent James River exhibition, which opens formally during Christmas week. Kids will be able to dabble in a water-filled area featuring a small water mill, waterfall, railroad and boats -- and learn about river life and commerce from the 1840s to the present.
The bright, light-drenched museum, relocated and expanded in 2000, is chock-full of special activities. The kids in my group loved scampering through the giant tree house, creating fall crafts in the art studio and journeying through the Tour de Tummy to learn how food is digested.
YULE LOGS, HINDU LIGHTS Holiday exhibitions at both museums highlight international themes. The Science Museum blossoms through Jan. 1 with trees celebrating 35 different cultures in "Joy From the World." At the Children's Museum through Dec. 31, "Our Community, Our World in Celebration" harbors six miniature houses, each dedicated to a winter festival: Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chinese Lunar New Year, Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) and Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting and prayer ending in celebration). Young visitors can enter the houses, admire the decorations, try on traditional clothing and participate in programs on storytelling, craftmaking, cooking and dancing.
TITANIC SCIENCE: The Real Artifacts, the True Stories -- Through Jan. 5 at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St., Richmond. 804-864-1400 or 800-659-1727. www.smv.org. Open Mondays through Thursdays from 9:30 to 5; Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30 to 9 and Sundays from 11:30 to 5. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tickets for Titanic Science include entrance to other exhibitions and the play "Unsinkable? Unthinkable!" Ages 13 and up $13.50, 60 and over $12.50, ages 4 to 12 $10.50, ages 3 and under free. With IMAX film, tickets are: adults $16.50, seniors $15.50 and ages 4 to 12 $13.50. Film-only tickets are $6.50. Titanic Science exhibit tickets are sold for specific dates and times; call 804-864-1400 or 800-659-1727 to purchase in advance. Call or check Web site for IMAX film and play times. "Joy From the World" runs through Jan. 1. Call or check the Web site for dates and times of holiday programs.
JAMES RIVER WATERPLAY -- Formally opens during Christmas week at the Children's Museum of Richmond, 2626 W. Broad St., Richmond. 804-474-2667 or 877-295-2667. www.c-mor.org. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:30 to 5, Sundays from noon to 5. $6, under 12 months free. "Our Community, Our World in Celebration" runs through Dec. 31. The museum is closed Dec. 24 and 25, and Jan. 1. A New Year's Eve party takes place Dec. 31 from 1 to 3 p.m. Call or check Web site for dates and times of other holiday programs.