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Titanic today.

TITANIC must be the most famous shipwreck of all time. While the wreck of the great liner lay abandoned in total darkness for more than 70 years, probably not a single day passed without someone mentioning her name. Now, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England, has opened a new exhibition, taking as its theme the wreck as it currently is and the recovery of objects from the seabed.

By diving in a submersible to a depth of two and a half miles, scientists have been revisiting a lost world to retrieve the evidence of history. No other story about the sea has been told and retold so many times. In fact, Titanic has become so much a part of popular culture that it is in danger of being obscured by fiction. This exhibition puts real objects from Titanic on view--everyday and extraordinary things that can give a firsthand account of Titanic and her people.

The exhibition gives a flashback to the building of Titanic. She and her sister ship, Olympic, were a triumph of engineering, setting new standards in comfort and luxury. The shock of the sinking was devastating not only because more than 1,500 people lost their lives, but because it was so completely unexpected. The exhibition includes newsreel footage showing how reports of the tragedy spread around the world.

Plans to find the wreck were proposed within days of the sinking, and many schemes for raising it were suggested over the years, without much hope of success. The position where Titanic sank was known only approximately, and the wreck was lying at such a great depth. There were many reasons for the longing to bring the ship back. Some felt that its retrieval might help to reconcile the loss and others believed that the wreck contained treasure. Still others regarded it as a scientific challenge, an opportunity to demonstrate the power of modem technology.

By the 1980s, electronic detection equipment had been developed for locating crashed aircraft and submarines on the seabed of deep oceans. It was this new technology that turned the dream of finding Titanic into reality.

Titanic finally was found in 1985, spread across the floor of the Atlantic. A joint French and American team of oceanographers nearly had reached the end of a two-month expedition when the survey ship's video monitor filled with the image of one of Titanic's boilers. This was the first time anyone had caught a glimpse of Titanic in 73 years.

Jubilation and excitement greeted the news that Titanic had been found at last, and millions of people were eager to learn what the wreck was like. The elation was clouded by anxiety, however. Finding the wreck made it vulnerable, as unscrupulous treasure seekers with no respect for the past might ransack the site.

The organization that has won the legal rights to raise objects from the wreck site has a strong sense of historical responsibility, however. RMS Titanic, Inc., is a New York-based company that has been working in partnership with IFREMER, the French Oceanographic Research Institute. IFREMER played a leading role in the discovery of Titanic and has collaborated with RMS Titanic, Inc., in three seasons of recovery operations on the site, in 1987, 1993, and 1994. RMS Titanic, Inc., is committed to maintaining the artifacts from the wreck in a permanent collection for display to the general public. There are plans for world touring exhibitions to follow the premier exhibition at Greenwich.

Photographic exploration of the wreck site reveals how Titanic has been transformed from a sleek liner into scattered e on the ocean floor. The ship tore in half as it sank, and the bow and stern now lie about 650 yards apart. The shapes of the larger sections of the ship appear strangely transformed, but still recognizable. The bow section is relatively intact, although the steel of the hull is covered with trailing rust and the wood of the decks has been eaten away, leaving only an insubstantial shell. The stem section has spun around to face away from the bow. It was so crushed by the great force of hitting the seabed that the decks have folded over each other.

Debris thrown out of the ship as it tore apart and sank is concentrated near the stern, but extends over a huge expanse roughly a mile square. Many thousands of objects lie scattered across the surface of the sediment. Remarkably, many of them are preserved perfectly. The contrasts are astonishing. In some areas, the thick steel plating of the ship has crumpled, while elsewhere, delicate glass and china objects remain completely undamaged. The immense hull was subject to massive steel-wrenching strains, while small individual items, after free-falling through the sea, came to rest far more gently on the cushion of silt.

Deep down in the ocean at the site, the cold and dark are intense and the pressure is about three tons per square inch. Through use of a manned submersible, Nautile, objects carefully have been taken up from where they lie scattered on the surface of the seabed. Nautile's articulated arms can manipulate a variety of tools for lifting different types and sizes of artifacts. The hands can take hold of objects, exerting minimum pressure. They even can tie knots. Smooth, flat objects such as plates can be lifted by a suction pad and gently placed into the lifting basket. A continuous record of the work is made with video and still cameras, coded with time, coordinates, heading, and depth. During the 1987 and 1993 expeditions, 250 hours of video and 10,000 still images were taken.

A detailed three-dimensional map of the wreck and the debris field on the surrounding seabed has been built up carefully and is being added to with each dive. The spot where each artifact is found can be pinpointed, and this makes it possible to study the distributions of different types of material and of objects that were in particular parts of the ship.

The increase in pressure exerted on the artifacts as they sank pushed corks into bottles and crushed the hollow handles of forks. Complete absence of light, the cold, and low oxygen levels slow down deterioration, but can not prevent it. Seabed currents, sometimes reaching speeds of two and a half knots, carry sediments that abrade exposed surfaces. Metals suffer chemical attack caused by slight differences in electrical energy between metals and seawater. Bacteria combine with metal, especially iron, to produce sulphides that degrade and stain many artifacts. Shipworm mollusks devour wooden items as they tunnel through them. In seawater, the small fibers which make up natural organic materials break down and separate, so artifacts become more porous and fragile.

When the submersible returns to the surface with the items collected during the dive, the lifting basket is craned onto the deck of the support ship. As the contents are taken out, each artifact is examined and recorded by a professional conservator, then put into wet storage. Titanic artifacts are kept in water troughs on the ship until they can be taken to laboratories ashore. When they are raised from the seabed, objects must be kept wet, otherwise corrosion speeds up and salts absorbed from the sea may form crystals and rupture the material.

The Titanic artifacts raised in 1987 were conserved by Electricite de France (EDF) at their laboratory in Saint-Denis. Finds from 1993 and 1994 are the responsibility of another French laboratory, LP3 Conservation. Electrical processes--electrolysis and electrophoresis--remove salts trapped inside the objects, then they are immersed in a chemical bath lined by a stainless steel grid and an electric current is used to extract soluble salts and dirt. Surface cleaning and consolidation are carried out by hand. After treatment, special supports are constructed for the most delicate items.

Many paper items have been retrieved, protected in leather bags. Their state of preservation is astonishing and is unparalleled in any other shipwreck excavation. There are business cards, a notebook, a dictionary, banknotes, instructions for using a fountain pen, and personal letters.

Since 1912, profound changes have taken place not only in technology, but in social attitudes. The wreck of the Titanic represents a vanished era, a slice of social history, frozen in time. Individual objects recovered can serve as a bridge for the imagination to cross the nearly 83 years since Titanic was afloat. They can tell us directly about the ship and her people. Scattered across the debris field, there are intact suitcases. Before setting out, more than 2,000 people packed their bags, carefully selecting the items they would need for the voyage, their business on arrival, even for setting up an entire new life in the New World. Opening these bags is like opening the story of someone's life.

It is still possible, of course, to buy objects from 1912 in antique shops, but those are unrelated things people have discarded. The artifacts recovered from Titanic are items people wanted to keep, groups of objects that had significance in individual lives and which now are associated forever with the greatest of all wrecked ships. They sank to the floor of the deep ocean and were thought to have been lost. That we can see them again seems little short of miraculous.

Many of the objects recovered from the wreck of the Titanic played key roles in the events of that fateful night in April, 1912. It was intensely dark, with a slight mist and no moonlight. Lookouts were stationed in the crow's nest on the foremast. Suddenly, Frederick Fleet saw an iceberg. The bell that he rang three times as a warning is on display in the exhibition.

Although exploratory dives have been able to provide detailed information about the present condition of the Titanic, the shipwreck still holds many secrets. In particular, the damage caused to the ship by the iceberg is hidden by the mound of silt forced up as the bow sliced into the seabed. On the seabed, time does not stand still. The wreck is decaying year by year. The steel will not last forever, and the vast hull probably will crumble within less than a century.

What does the future hold for Titanic? Now that the shipwreck has been found, it is vulnerable. It lies in international waters and, if RMS Titanic, Inc., and IFREMER were to stop work on the site, treasure hunters could take over. It would be a great loss if the site were damaged and if objects were sold to private collectors and thus were denied to the public.

Similar problems face other shipwreck sites. Any wreck can be reached now, and there is a danger that increasing numbers of important shipwrecks, which should be historic resources for everyone, will be exploited for private commercial gain. Treasure hunters tear wrecks apart in the search for valuable artifacts, never caring that they are ripping up history.

There is a need for better regulation to avert the very real threats to the world's underwater heritage. Progress is being made to draw up agreements on the protection of important wreck sites lying in international waters, including Titanic. Meanwhile, RMS Titanic, Inc., and the National Maritime Museum have collaborated to form a Titanic International Advisory Committee to find ways to safeguard the wreck site and artifacts raised from it, as well as to establish a permanent Titanic memorial museum.

The exhibition, "The Wreck of the Titanic," originally scheduled to close on April 2, has been extended through Oct. 1 at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England, because of overwhelming public interest. Many of the artifacts then will go on tour internationally over the next 10 years, with sites and schedules to be announced.

RELATED ARTICLE: Diving to the Wreck

THE THIRD EXPEDITION to recover artifacts from around the wreck of the Titanic took place in mid summer, 1994. As always, it was a point operation between RMS Titanic, Inc.--the salvors in possession of the wreck--and IFREMER, the French Oceanographic Research Institute, which had played a major role in finding the wreck in 1985.

IFREMER's research vessel Nadir sailed from Ponta Delgada in the Azores in early July, taking four days to reach the site. On board for this month-long expedition were 39 people: 15 to run the ship; 14 to manage the submersible Nautile; the RMS Titanic, Inc., team; conservators; a television film crew; and me as a representative of Britain's National Maritime Museum, an eyewitness to the latest chapter in the Titanic story.

Eighteen dives were made down the two and a half miles to the wreck site, using IFREMER's yellow submersible, Nautile. She is 18 tons of electronic equipment, video cameras, mechanical arms, batteries, and weights. A crew of three squeeze into a titanium sphere a little over six feet in diameter.

Although it may be uncomfortable to lie on a bench for 10 and a half hours while craning one's neck to look out of a 12-centimeter porthole (less than five inches), it was something all 39 of us wanted to do. Only 12 could, however. After a little persuasion and a lot of pleading, I was very privileged to go down on dive 13.

The briefing for the dive--what to do in case of fire, how many days the crew could survive on the bottom--proved to be more frightening than the event. Being surrounded by electronic equipment and sharing the sphere with two men who do this sort of thing every other day took away any sense of claustrophobia or anxiety. What had seemed from the outside a violent swinging on the crane as Nautile was launched into the water was more a gentle swaying motion from the inside. There was not even a falling sensation as we descended for an hour and a half to the ocean floor.

Natural light had been left behind in the first few minutes of the dive. On the bottom, Nautile's lights, illuminating the area 15 meters ahead (about 50 feet), revealed seabed almost desert-like in appearance. Yet, there is life in this cold and desolate world--a few rat-tailed fish, spindly starfish, and bright white crabs, seeming completely oblivious to our presence. Traveling to these depths has been compared to going to the moon, but men have walked, even played golf there. No one has that freedom at the bottom of the North Atlantic. One constantly is aware that he never can be in this alien world, just an observer behind a thick, but small, glass porthole.

The principal task of this dive was to put a lasso around a fairlead (a device for guiding ropes) lying on the seabed near the stern section of the hull. It involved digging a small trench under the fairlead, pushing a needle through, and then connecting the line to the lifting bags. While this sounds simple, it took the pilot more than four hours without a moment's break. I had underestimated just how difficult and frustrating recovery operations can be. I also had assumed that the debris field around the two sections of the hull was littered fairly densely with objects. During the entire dive 13, we saw no artifacts, apart from the fairlead, worth recovering at all. Most of the seabed we passed over had only a few broken plates and lumps of coal. There were large areas where there was absolutely nothing. The other dives were more successful. As far as those on Nadir were concerned, the "star" artifact recovered undoubtedly was a 2.3-ton mooring bollard, but other significant finds were binoculars (whose absence in the crow's nest in April, 1912, was much commented upon at the U.S. and British inquiries), a camera, tools, and a washing-up sink (full of broken plates and cutlery, possibly from the last meal served on board).

The highlight of my dive was seeing the stern of Titanic. Suddenly, out of the darkness, an enormous propeller emerged, half-buried, but still in remarkable condition, its maker's marks visible. The rest of the stern has not fared as well. On its plunge from the surface, huge sections of the hull plating were ripped off, and decks had peeled back like can lids. I soon was disoriented completely, the crumpled metal giving few clues to the scenes of the awful drama on that cold April night in 1912.

According to the IFREMER Head of Submersibles, the stern of Titanic is in the worst state of any shipwreck he has seen. However, 600 meters away (about 2,000 feet), and too far for me to see on my dive, lies the most beautiful sight--the ship's bow. The television cameraman--a veteran of sea and war documentaries--was overwhelmed. The wreck of Titanic was the only thing he ever had seen to which film could not do justice.

How much longer will such sights be able to be seen? The wreck is disintegrating quite quickly. The crow's nest has disappeared. The entire gymnasium roof has collapsed within the last year. The corrosion is increasing rapidly. In perhaps as few as 10 years, the structures will have collapsed entirely.

Titanic, like perhaps all abandoned ships, is a melancholy sight, rusting away in the darkness. Seeing the ship that has become a legend is a moving experience and one I long to repeat. For me, it was seeing artifacts come up from the depths after 82 years that really brought the tragedy home. An engineer's wrench, a souvenir from the Isle of Man, a cufflink--these are the things that stop us thinking of Titanic merely as a statistic somewhere high up on a table of maritime disasters and force us to remember that there were 1,503 individuals, each with their own stories, lost that night. These artifacts are all we have to remember them by.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Salvage Controversy

FOR MONTHS PRIOR to the opening of the exhibition, "The Wreck of the Titanic," there was a raging controversy over bringing up artifacts from the wreck site, including charges of "grave robbing." USA Today approached various maritime specialists for their opinions concerning the exhibition of Titanic artifacts at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

According to Edward S. Kamuda, president, Titanic Historical Society, Inc., which publishes the lively quarterly, The Titanic Commutator, "The Titanic wreck site is a grave. The U.S. Coast Guard/International Ice Patrol has recognized that fact for many years on each anniversary date of the disaster and conducts a memorial service on site. On April 16, 1994, the ashes of Titanic survivor Ruth Becker Blanchard were cast over the area by a USCG chaplain, where they will join Fourth Officer Boxhall and Frank Goldsmith, also Titanic survivors who requested they be returned to the sea where hundreds of people perished. An annual wreath ceremony by that U.S. government agency adds weight to what the site represents, and public relations attempts by salvagers or investors to rationalize grave robbing as preservation and education do not alter the fact. They claim retrieval outside the hull is acceptable and inside is not. How do you measure the perimeter of a grave site? Is one section of Gettysburg off limits while another is all right? Death is death, whether it is from war or peace, and salvaging where innocent people died horrible deaths and drawing arbitrary lines might soothe some guilty consciences with that kind of rationalizing, but saying such doesn't make taking items from one side of a `line' right. We are not talking about discovering ancient civilizations or preserving history from an unknown era. The ship and her people have been chronicled in numerous books, films, videos, and photographs, and that endeavor still continues. To ignore that fact and present an exhibition of artifacts as unique and educational is akin to reinventing the wheel.... To see Titanic artifacts in the name of preservation and education, it wasn't necessary to plunder her grave site, open wounds in some of the affected families, or stir [up] controversy since there was nothing presented that wasn't known already...."

Walter Lord, author of A Night to Remember, the best-selling account of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, points out that, "At some point, so-called grave robbing becomes respectable archaeology. The question is when. Usually, when the last of the people [who were involved in the incident] have passed on. The controversy is over perception, and neither side will ever convince the other King Tut's tomb actually was grave robbing. but now is considered archaeology. The value of the finds is negligible as far as education is concerned." Nevertheless, such exhibitions are welcomed by the public because the "salvaged artifacts are fascinating to look at. [They show] life in 1912 more vividly than photos. [It is] almost like looking at old photos in three dimensions."

Frank O. Braynard, curator, American Merchant Marine Museum at the Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, N.Y., and a maritime historian, maintains that the controversy is "Plain bunk! The ship is the best-known in the world. Interest in it is simply enormous. You can't stop the surge of interest." The artifacts "satisfy an almost ghoulish demand on the part of the public to learn anything about the ship. It's human nature." Moreover, "The astounding ability of French and American groups to get down [to the wreck site] proves man can do almost anything."

Author and lecturer Bill Miller feels that "It's not grave robbing at all. What it is is bringing up artifacts that are fascinating to people, as well as adding to the general allure of the greatest maritime tragedy in history. Over the years, people have not lost any interest in the Titanic, and bringing up these artifacts has added another chapter to a saga that seems to go on forever and ever. These artifacts are enlightening and enriching and bring the tragedy closer to all of us. For modern technology to have even found these items is phenomenal. Of course, I wouldn't want them to ever disassemble the whole wreck, but what they're doing now is a great service to historians and the general public."
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; exhibition of Titanic artifacts
Author:Hutchinson, Gillian; Kentley, Eric
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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