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As a "recovering" middle school teacher with a unique outlook on life, I stopped active teaching in 2010 and moved into another career path... writing! Here goes! In addition, I am a travel buff, forever baseball addict, movie fan, music fan, foodie extraordinaire, NCIS devotee, gardener, and more.

Just love writing for kids, travel writing and basic journalism. Pretty unusual, since I taught Home Economics! But there's a story here too - a non-fiction one or more...

Monday, January 28, 2013

What to do on a rainy day in Philly town

Rule #6 – A writer needs to honor traditions, for there are stories within.

     It was a dark and stormy night…
     Okay, so it wasn’t a night but it was a dark and stormy weekday. That made it the perfect time to visit Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. We parked in the museum garage off of 21st St. We walked in and dodged a few school field trips making their way to the buses. We walked right up and got our tickets to go into the museum and see the Titanic exhibit. And we had 10 minutes before we moved on schedule through the Titanic Artifact exhibit which is at the Franklin Institute until April, 2013. Never have I moved through a public venue that quickly. Okay, once before.  I visited the Alamo in the pouring rain and we had that venue all to ourselves too. It really does pay to be a water-logged tourist.

RMS Titanic - photo from History.com
     My sister and I ventured up to the third floor, where he artifact exhibit begins. As we walked in, we were handed a boarding pass, with a name on it.  Our passes had our class of travel on it too, along with a bit of a back story about the person who we “were”. Then it was time to make our way to the dock, where the past became the present.

     The exhibit begins with the building of the Titanic in Belfast.  Wrenches and bolts used by Harlan and Wolff Shipbuilders are safely secured under glass. Pictures of the crews at work are on display in this section. A portrait of Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s designer, and Lord Pirrie, the president of Harlan and Wolff, are on display. Then we move from the dock, passed suitcases and trunks - some salvaged from the wreck – up the gangplank, as if we were boarding the vessel to the B deck of the ship.  We move into the ship at the point of the Grand Staircase.  This portion of the exhibit is recreated from the photographs and design drawings left behind. I stop for a moment on the portion of the steps open to visitors and imagine myself descending the stairs, meeting friends before we continue to D deck for dinner.
Recovered stair cherub - Photo from History.com

     The tour takes you down the B-deck corridor to the First Class rooms.  You see salvaged personal items – decanters, glasses, shaving gear, and currency – from the First Class cabins on display. You also see a recreation of a typical First Class cabin.  Everywhere, there are written descriptions of the activities of the passengers at this level of travel.  Life on board ship was quite luxurious.  Titanic boasted the latest of modern conveniences, such as electric lighting, private lavatories, and in-room heaters.  We learn, too, that an average First Class ticket cost around $2800 – in 1912 economic dollars. That is around $70,000 now.

Dishes were displayed as you see them here, in sand from the ocean's floor - Photo from History.com
     Next we move to Second Class. Again we get a glimpse into the life on board for Second Class passengers.  Stories line the walls about passengers and their travel plans.  We see recovered china and glassware from this area of the ship. We see a typical cabin from Second Class. Many more personal items – a business perfume sample, whiskey bottles – are on display here.  This seems to be the “business class” of 1912 – comfortable but not luxurious or ostentatious.

Recovered silverware - Photo from History.com

Salvaged pocket watches - Photo from History.com
     As we walk down the reconstructed corridor from Second Class, I have an eerie feeling.  We move to the Third Class, where the White Star Line made most of its money.  Third Class passengers board to escape persecution in their homelands.  Third Class passengers look for a better life in America.  Third class passengers are the “cash cow” for ship lines in the early 20th century.  Their cabins are smaller, with bunk beds.  They are packed closer together in their quarters. But the cabins are clean and have running wash water on tap in the cabin! Such a luxury this is for the Third Class passengers! We see many personal passenger artifacts here, some that we’ve seen in James Cameron’s movie – eye glasses, waistcoats, currency. There is no denying, however, the knowledge that many of our grandparents and great-grandparents traveled to America in lodgings such as these. It makes one humble, it does.

     There is a ramp that brings the visitors from the third floor down to the second. On your trip down the ramp, you feel vibrations and hear the engine noises.  You are now heading into the heart of the ship – the engine room.  Many artifacts recovered from the stern section debris field are on display in this section along with their placement referenced in the pictures on the wall.  We move into the darkness, where many more personal artifacts are displayed.  Then there it is – the iceberg – or a replica of the typical iceberg. This is one that you can touch and get a tactile idea of the cold encountered by the passengers on that fateful night.

     Then you have a chance to see how the RMS Titanic, Inc. recovered the artifacts. There is a 3D representation of exploring the ship from the eyes of the robot rovers. And as you complete the visit, you see the list of passengers. They are broken up into survivors and deceased. It’s interesting to note that the amount of First Class passengers who survived seems equal to the amount of Third Class passengers who perished.  Here is a vivid reminder of the inequities built into the class system of travel.  Here it hits you how many lost their lives that night.  Here is a chance for a prayer to their memory.

     My sister and I have a chance to see if our “person’s survived.  As First Class women, we both know our chances are better than good. Sure enough, we both survived, as did everyone in our parties – even the men.

     The Franklin Institute is well worth the trip even without the special exhibit. We both got to play with all the other hands-on exhibits, since the museum was virtually empty.  There are interactive exhibits on weather, astronomy, and wellness. The Institute boasts of the only walk-through heart.  But the Titanic artifact exhibit is on that should not be missed.

     I was able to catch the artifact exhibit when it first toured the United States. That time, I saw it at the Maryland Science Center, in Baltimore. The premise was similar in that you “became” a passenger with a boarding pass, toured the decks and below decks, touched the iceberg and found out if you survived.

     This trip was different. It’s been 100 years since the great ship slipped beneath the Atlantic. It’s been 27 years since Robert Ballard and his team found her on the floor of the Atlantic. In that time period, many expeditions to the wreck site documented the damage. Much to Dr. Ballard’s chagrin, many more visited the site to recover artifacts, or some just to visit, at times creating more damage to the fragile ship. It truly is hallowed ground, a grave for many.

     Being close to the artifacts this time gave me an eerie feeling, just like my previous visit. These items belonged to people, with lives and families, histories and futures. Lives cut short by one fateful ticket. Yet, it made this visit even more precious. I felt the need to honor those whose lives were lost in some way. No one who visits the artifacts leaves without the experience affecting them in some fashion. My first visit sent me investigating everything written about the wreck. This visit had me reviewing much of the written investigations, including the strikes at the ship yard, and the politics behind the decisions made.

     The fascination with the history around Titanic will never stop. She tells a sad tale of arrogance, ignorance, cost cutting, fighting, foolishness and pride. It’s a tale told in other historical events, with just as great a loss of life. But this story resonates to this day. The politics of some of the decisions made add pathos to the story. And last year, her last survivor, Milvina Dean, passed away.

Milvina Dean, last survivor of the Titanic sinking - Photo from History.com

     We are still learning much from her, especially in the metallurgical area. She is responsible for a lot of the safety we now enjoy on cruise ships. Trans-Atlantic shipping is safer, thanks to many of the regulations that came about after she sank. She still talks to us from the deep. Her ghosts have much more to say to us. We just need to listen. And never forget...

Bow of Titanic now... 
(Thank you, History Channel at history.com, for the photographs.)

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