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    Are shipwrecks gravesites? Titanic exhibit sails into South Florida museum with controversy onboard
    • October 16, 2023

    Almost 112 years after it sank into the icy Atlantic, the tragic maiden voyage of the Titanic endures as a public obsession. One of those shipwreck junkies is the Cox Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach, which is showcasing a blockbuster display of real artifacts from the doomed ship for the second time in 10 years.

    Opening Thursday, Oct. 12, “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” spotlights 81 relics salvaged from the most infamous maritime disaster in modern history. There are cracked perfume vials still fragrant more than a century later; a gilded five-socket chandelier from the men’s first-class smoking room; a preserved leather bag; chipped figurines and a delicate glass syringe and a third-class cup still marked with the White Star Line logo, the British shipping line that built the luxury liner.

    These fragments of the past, plucked from their watery grave, are meant to be poignant reminders of the passengers and crew who left them behind — and most likely died with them, says Carla Duhaney, the Cox Science Center’s chief operating officer.

    “It’s about love and heroism and the split-second decisions that these passengers and crew had to make that day,” Duhaney tells the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “You feel like you’re on the boat itself. What would you have packed on the Titanic? What would you have grabbed as it went down? Would you have saved yourself or someone else?”

    (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    A White Star Line china cup recovered from the depths is part of a display of 81 artifacts in the new “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    The artifacts are on loan from RMS Titanic Inc., which since 1994 has owned the salvage rights to the wreck and tours the objects in seven exhibits now circling the globe, including a permanent display in Orlando. (The 81 pieces on display are a fraction of the roughly 5,500 it has.)

    If the company’s name sounds familiar, it may be because the federal government took action in June to block its future artifact expeditions — including one planned in 2024 — claiming that the ship is a memorial site that should be federally regulated. That legal battle to decide whether the Titanic’s remains should be salvaged comes in the wake of the June 18 OceanGate submersible disaster, when five people died attempting to tour the wreck.

    For her part, Tomasina Ray, director of collections for RMS Titanic Inc., thinks the artifacts belong in museums and exhibits instead of the water.

    “These artifacts should be recovered because they have so many stories to tell,” Ray says. “There’s so much you can get from seeing an actual piece of history than by looking at pictures. It sparks more conversation.”

    And wonder. One of her favorite artifacts on display, Ray says, is the logometer, a mechanical device that measures the distance a ship travels. Reset at noon on April 14, 1912, the device showed that the Titanic traveled 268 nautical miles that day — then traveled no more.

    (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    A first-class chandelier recovered from the depths is on display at “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” opening Oct. 12 at the Cox Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    “It’s a remarkable thing showing the exact moment that the world stopped,” Ray says. “It’s frozen in time.”

    Another display features century-old vials of still-fragrant perfume. Tomasina says they belonged to German-Jewish chemist Adolphe Saalfeld, who hoped to strike it rich in the New York perfume business but left the samples behind in a panic as the ship sank.

    “The vial glass is really strong and held up to the water pressure all this time,” she says. “A lot of what we learned in recovering artifacts is we got lucky. The leather bags stayed intact because they happened to be coated in the right chemicals.”

    (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    A reproduction of a third-class cabin is on display at “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.” (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    Each museum visitor who buys a ticket is handed a boarding pass, which bears the name of one of the 2,223 passengers who sailed the Titanic. At the end of the exhibit, on a memorial wall, visitors can learn whether that passenger lived or died.

    With somber reverence, visitors are also steered through Titanic history, learning about construction of the ship in Belfast in 1909; how its voyage from England to New York on April 10, 1912, was thwarted by a jagged iceberg; and how RMS Titanic Inc., managed to dredge up all those artifacts. There are recreations of first- and third-class cabins — as well as a 7 1/2-foot wide “iceberg” that patrons can touch.

    (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    A delicate Dutch boy ceramic piece is one of 81 artifacts on display for the “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

    So why bring back the Titanic exhibit now? The answer, Duhaney says, is why not? The shipwreck never stops fascinating new generations — and never sails out of the news cycle for long.

    There are Titanic-themed musicals; a low-budget mock sequel (“Titanic II”); endless social-media debates about whether Jack could have fit on Rose’s floating door in the James Cameron movie; endless conspiracy theories and encyclopedias and dedicated TikTok accounts; and no fewer than seven Titanic museums worldwide, one of which — in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. — is literally ship-shaped.

    “It was a watershed moment in history,” Duhaney adds. “People are so obsessed with the Titanic’s stories, and we love to tell stories at the Science Center.”


    WHAT: “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition”

    WHEN: Oct. 12, 2023 through April 14, 2024

    WHERE: Cox Science Center & Aquarium, 4801 Dreher Trail N., West Palm Beach

    COST: $20-$24

    INFORMATION: or 561-832-1988 

    ​ Orange County Register