Visual Arts

Everyday objects fascinate in Titanic exhibit at Lexington Center

A chandelier from the first class smoking room at the Titanic Exhibit at the Lexington Center in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 25, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
A chandelier from the first class smoking room at the Titanic Exhibit at the Lexington Center in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 25, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

The touchable iceberg at the about-to-debut Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in Lexington is not authentic — more of a frosty refrigerator clump — but it nonetheless clobbers home its point: The waters were killing the night the supership sank in 1912.

When patrons enter the Titanic exhibit, running Oct. 5 through Jan. 26 at the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery by Rupp Arena, they receive a ticket with the name of a passenger.

The name on a ticket given out at the media preview Wednesday night was Eleanor Widener in first class. This was encouraging: Many women in first class survived, having made the cut for Titanic's inadequate lifeboats, although at least one opted to remain on board with her husband.

At the end of the exhibit — the last turn before the gift shop, where you can buy bits of Titanic coal and reproduction china and jewelry — exhibit-goers search out the fate of their passenger on the memory wall of all passengers lost. It lists the names of all those who died or survived: 705 saved, 1,523 lost.

The exhibit begins with background on the building and launch of the mammoth ship. Capt. Edward J. Smith held a retirement dinner the night of the sinking at which he called his years of sea service uneventful.

Artifacts gleaned from around the Titanic debris field — as a memorial, the ship itself is left alone at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, 12,500 feet below the surface — are enclosed in glass cases. Textiles and furniture of the period are reproduced for the re-creations of the first- and third-class cabins.

Those touring the exhibit might be surprised at the size of the beds and shoes: People living 100 years ago were lighter and shorter. Bathrooms are not shown, but Theresa Costas, a public relations manager for Premier, the company overseeing the touring Titanic exhibitions, said that in third class, passenger toilets had automatic flushing mechanisms, while those in first class had to be flushed manually. Costas said the White Star Line reasoned that poorer people had less experience with indoor toilets.

Costas said the socks of one Titanic messenger are particularly heart-rending for her: a common item of the time, still stitched together and new, but never to be worn.

Also stunning — a "fan favorite," Costas says — is the pile of gratin dishes, shown in their case and in a nearby picture where they were found, still neatly stacked at the bottom of the ocean.

The things that weathered extended time underwater were numerous but seemingly random: Items that were encased in leather survived particularly well, among them postcards, bits of cash and a manual for the North Buffalo Order of Odd Fellows.

Dishes and table accoutrements abound — including a decanter and salt cellar, and chocolate cup and saucer.

"We conserve," Costas said. "We don't restore them. ... We want to keep away further deterioration."

She said photos of the inside of the Titanic are remarkably scarce as references for room re-creations because "paint was drying as passengers were boarding." The ship was on its maiden voyage when it struck an iceberg the night of April 14-15, 1912.

Items such as menus could be reproduced, so it's easy to see the vast quantities of food being offered the night the ship sank. First-class passengers went to their fates with bellies full of peaches in chartreuse jelly.

The White Star line offered enhanced amenities to its third-class passengers in the hopes of getting a bigger share of the booming immigrant traffic, Costas said. First-class accommodations, she said, "were unlike anything the world had seen before."

The accident itself "was a perfect storm of elements," Costas said. "If we were to remove just one of them, we probably wouldn't be standing here today."

Back to the boarding pass: Eleanor Widener, whose ticket was carried through the exhibit, survived. But Widener, one of the wealthiest people on board the Titanic, lost her husband and son and a big, expensive necklace.

She made a sizeable donation to Harvard, ensuring that the Widener name would live on in the school's main library.

The necklace was later recovered, put on display and in 2011 was stolen from a display case in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The bauble did not go gentle into obscurity.

That necklace was rumored to have inspired the "Heart of the Ocean" necklace that was a central plot point in James Cameron's Oscar-winning 1997 film Titanic.

'Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition'

When: Oct. 5-Jan. 26. Museum hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri., Sat.

Where: Lexington Center Museum and Gallery, second floor, Lexington Center, 430 W. Vine St.

Tickets: $12 adults, $10 ages 55 and older, $9 ages 3-13. Available at (859) 233-3535, or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

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