On my way into Georgia Aquarium’s “Titanic Aquatic” exhibition, I was handed a replica boarding pass for a passage on history’s most famously tragic ship. Lily Potter was the name. She traveled with her daughter, Olive Earnshawa. It was April 10, 1912, when she joined the voyage from Cherbourg, France to New York.
I stepped into a museum version of how the trip was intended to be for first class passengers. It was exciting, like the blown-up front pages showed, and richly luxurious, like the detailed replica room. (Going rate: $4,000 in 1912.) There was clean china with unspoiled patterns, remnants of the hot-and-cold bathtub spigots, toiletries someone carried on board. They’re all behind climate-controlled glass — no touching allowed — but they are the real thing, brought up to land only since the wreckage was located in 1985.
“Titanic Aquatic” contains 190 such artifacts, and when the exhibition ends its yearlong run on Sept. 7, it’ll be the first time in years that Atlantans can’t easily find pieces of the Titanic on display. The Aquarium exhibition opened after “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” was at The Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center, and still it caused a spike in Aquarium attendance. More than 350,000 visitors have walked through “Titanic Aquatic,” and although Aquarium admission is included, many said they came first for the history, second for the fish. (After “Titanic,” a new exhibition, “Planet Shark: Predator or Prey”, will have its world premiere at the Aquarium on Oct. 3.)
From first class to steerage, the soundtrack went from classical music to clanging furnace. In the cheaper accommodations, the White Star Line logo appeared on everything from bedspreads to dishes as a theft-deterrent. Text posters explain all this — good for a curious reader like me, less helpful for the women in front of me trying to negotiate the exhibition with a toddler in tow.
Of course, everyone knows how it ends. The next room shifted from look-but-don’t-touch distance to a hands-on, moment-by-moment replay of the night of April 15. An iceberg was spotted at 11:40 p.m., I learned, and after an attempt to avoid it, a crash, a flood, orders to evacuate and the departure of half-filled lifeboats, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic was under water by 2:20 a.m. Interactive stations lets visitors steer a boat — I crashed it — and touch a freshwater iceberg. Afterward, it’s not so hard to comprehend how hypothermia, not drowning, killed so many passengers.
If not for the last room in the exhibition, it would be easy to be sucked in by the Discovery Channel-style geekery of undersea exploration and ship-building. The final room showcases personal objects rescued from the water, and the biographies of people who carried them on board. The part I still find most chilling are glass boxes of Titanic artifacts paired with photos of those same artifacts in sand and under water.
Among 2,223 people on board, 706 survived. Most first class passengers were saved; most third class passengers were not. The memorial wall illustrates the disparity by listing who lived and who died in each group — first, second and third classes and crew members.
Before I walked back into the noisy Aquarium, I made sure to give that wall a close look. Lily Potter, whose boarding pass I carried, traveled in first class. She survived.
See it: History buffs, nerds for all things nautical, pre-teens and teens who’ve seen the movies or studied the “Titanic” for school.
Skip it: Toddlers and little kids, visitors who want a hands-on experience, crowd-haters. (I walked through on a Tuesday morning; by the time I got out, dozens of people were with me.)
Want to go? “Titanic Aquatic,” 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. Through Sept. 7. $31.50; $26.25 senior citizens; $23.50 children (includes general aquarium admission). Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-581-4000, www.georgiaaquarium.org.