I’m in the Palace of Culture and Science to roam around the history of the “Titanic”. As I enter Titanic: the exhibition, I’m greeted by a newsboy mannequin wearing a newsboy’s cap and holding an armful of papers announcing the sinking. I pass a still life of battered suitcases, some of them leather, like the one we packed for holidays when I was a child. Up the gangplank, and I’m amongst portraits of the men who conceived and designed the indestructible ship, and the (mainly) men who travelled on it. I’m driven on at a pace not my own by the commentary in my ear which I can’t seem to pause.
The portraits are all meticulously numbered and the glass cases meticulously lettered, so I know exactly where I am. The voice in my ear repeatedly, but not always, assures me of the authenticity of what I’m looking at. When this assurance is missing I wonder whether I’m looking at a fake, or even an invention.
The artefacts are oddly familiar. A very similar glass inkwell sits on the windowsill of my study at home: it held black Quink ink in the days when I did school assignments with a mapping pen. The showcase of tools contains many familiar from my father’s toolkit – the manual drill, the well-worn plane, the folding ruler.
It doesn’t take long for class to intrude. One of the portraits is of the “millionaires’ captain”, the man who was chosen by the White Star Line to sail ships with a cargo of moneyed men because of his expertise (and maybe his very neat moustache.) Then I see the bunks in the third class cabins and compare them with the elegant staterooms, like rooms I’ve seen in Polish palaces, for those who can afford to pay – brocaded furniture and richly-carved panelled walls and doors. I walk along a corridor of such cabins, a mini-chandelier outside each closed door. Gleaming silver furnishes the first class dining table.
The things that most interest me are stories of recovery. In 1981, a dinner plate was netted by Spanish fishermen and eventually confirmed as a kosher plate from one of the Titanic’s dinner services. In 1999 the Titanic’s horn was lifted from the bottom of the sea: it’s fascinating to hear its sonorous cry over the years, the cry passengers and farewellers heard as the ship left its inaugural / final ports. A ring had a lengthier story: it was on the finger of a woman who jumped into the sea and reached a lifeboat, but died when she couldn’t be lifted in (although her husband managed to clamber aboard.) As her grip loosened on the lifeboat the ring fell off and was later found in the lifeboat drifting with a few dead bodies.
Photos of the members of the band that played as the TItanic sank reminded me of a seemingly incongruous memorial in a park in Broken Hill: it was erected in 1913 by a community far from the sea and any threat from icebergs, a community with a strong culture of bands.
The commentary occasionally approaches silliness: “the subtle scent of fresh paint” doesn’t cut it, nor does a reference to the “self-sacrificing workers” in the engine room.
Arrogance and grandiosity feature in the stories of the Titanic. The notion that it was unsinkable allowed the builders to reduce the number of lifeboats to make wider walkways for first class promenaders. Laws were to blame too – they hadn’t adjusted to the exitence of larger vessels.
I’m not a fan of sentimentality, and the commentary excels at it: stories of children snatched from parental arms and thrown into the lifeboats, husbands and wives separated are profoundly sad, but my imagination suffices. I don’t need my heartstrings tugged by the voice’s insistence. The long lists of names at the end of the exhibition, with ages listed, were not at all sentimental and therefore more moving. However they are still categorised even in death: first class passengers, second class passengers, third class passengers, crew.
When I first noticed that the Palace of Culture and Science was hosting Titanic: the exhibition, I saw it as yet another Warsaw incongruity. But as I raised my eyes above the screens containing the exhibition, I saw another grandiosity – the vast columns and domes of the inside of Stalin’s grandiose and arrogant gift.