I was assigned to our Discovery Gallery for a few hours yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed interacting with our guests about the 26-foot long, 56-thousand-piece Lego ship.
Built by Brynjar Karl, an autistic ten-year-old from Iceland, the ship is an inspiring tribute to human achievement.
I was surprised with how open our young guests were in their admiration of the accomplishment. Two boys were visiting from Houston, and they told me they were getting ideas for their own projects. They have built a much smaller Titanic and plan to make a film featuring it.
“But this . . .” said the older of the two, gesturing with his hands toward Brynjar Karl’s magnificent Titanic.”
He trailed off, just shaking his head in wonder.
His brother made me laugh when he said, “And I thought my Lego Death Star was something.”
I had fascinating conversations with many of the adults, as well. One man shared his own experience with his autistic granddaughter. He told me of how she loves to read and has stacks of her favorite books.
“Sometimes at bedtime I’m reading to her and I think she’s already asleep, and I’ll skip ahead. The other night she opened one eye, took the book from my hand and turned back to the place where I had been reading before skipping.”
After we chatted a bit more about how special these autistic children are, he looked thoughtful and said, “You know, maybe we’re the ones with challenges.”
In other words, we who assume we’re the normal ones are perhaps comparatively less in many ways.
Certainly autism often comes with enhanced abilities.
I very much enjoyed my several hours sharing Brynjar Karl’s Titanic with our guests. Such proofs of what is possible call to something deep within each of us. The Lego Titanic is a fitting conclusion to a tour of Titanic Museum Attraction, which showcases a major accomplishment for society in the early years of the Twentieth Century, more than a century ago.
Dressed as First Class passenger Col. Archibald Gracie, I awaited the frisky group at the Map, which is the first gallery in our world-class museum. And yes, frisky is the word. There were two children skipping, pirouetting, humming what sounded like the theme from Walt Disney’s Frozen.
There was a dark-haired little girl of maybe five years trotting beside her younger brother, whose name she later confided in me was Cody, though I never did learn the girl’s name.
But yes, I suspected this would be one of those delightful groups when the dark-haired little girl suddenly stopped and flung her arms wide as though embracing a wondrous something too amazing at first to even identity. But then, she did identify it exuberantly.
“Oh, Mommy, look”, she exclaimed, “Oh, it’s a treasure chest!”
Brother Cody approached it cautiously, with the reluctance of a born skeptic. He looked almost scientific as he eyed it, not yet willing to concede. I could see it in his face. His sister might be a year or so older, but he watched her with the understanding that she was prone to absurd pronouncements and perhaps needed his steady consideration of the thing before confirming that an actual treasure chest could have been on the Titanic.
“Yes, I said, smiling at the girl and her little brother. “it does look like a treasure chest, doesn’t it?”
I explained that it is like a big suitcase that people of more than a hundred years ago used when they took a voyage across the ocean. Known as a steamer trunk, it was definitely onboard Titanic. It belonged to a Third Class passenger.
The Titanic broke in two before sinking, and this trunk was one of thousands of items that fell out of the ship as it was sinking.
“Those items that could float were bobbing around on the surface. Recovery ships were immediately dispatched to clean up what was then considered a dangerous mess. The debris field went on for miles.”
Cody stood before me with a stern expression, his eyes fixed upon me. Meanwhile, his dark-haired sister discovered something to fiddle with on her sneaker
I began to tell of Titanic’s voyage, which started in Southampton, England.
“April tenth, 1912,” I said. “One of those days when you can just feel the excitement. It was a celebration, the first day of the first voyage of the great Titanic.”
That’s when the dark-haired little girl popped up, bumping against brother Cody, who let out an offended moan, turning to his parents, his facial expression suggesting –without words–the idea: did you see what she just did?
His sister, unperturbed, stood on tiptoe, raising her hands as she exclaimed, “I just love penguins!”
Others had come over to join the group by now, smiling and nodding at the dark-haired girl’s excited proclamation. The parents looked at me apologetically, leaning forward to whisper for the girl to just listen.
But that was my cue to grab this sudden reference to penguins and weave it into the presentation. After all, hadn’t Col. Archibald Gracie, the passenger I was pretending to be, resembled a penguin out there on that night, balancing atop a capsized lifeboat?
“How interesting that you would mention penguins,” I said. That reminds me how I had to stand on capsized Collapsible Lifeboat B with my arms out like this . . .”
I held my arms out to either side.
“. . . on the capsized lifeboat where I and thirty other men stood like penguins as we tried to balance on top of that overturned lifeboat as the Titanic was sinking.”
And I nodded to the guests who had just joined the group.
“Col. Archibald Gracie,” I informed them, “was washed off the sinking Titanic by a wave, was able to reach a capsized lifeboat known as Collapsible Lifeboat B, and stood like this—arms out to side—balancing for hours with thirty other men until the Carpathia arrived.”
The Carpathia was the first ship to arrive in response to the distress call. It arrived around 4 a.m., an hour and forty minutes after the Titanic sank.
I then returned to the Map, tracing the route from Southampton, to Cherbourg, to Queenstown, and from there to where the lookouts called down to the Navigating Bridge, Iceberg Right Ahead.
That was when the dark-haired little girl, who seemed lost in thought about penguins, looked up expectantly.
“Sharks?” she cried, her voice rising. “There were sharks?”
Apparently when I said Iceberg right ahead she heard not Iceberg but shark. Such an exuberant child, such imagination. I noticed that brother Cody had adopted a look of resignation. He caught my eye with an expression as if to convey the idea of his long suffering in the face of her outbursts. It was as though he were saying she’s always like this.
“Oh,” I said. “Yes, maybe sharks. Just maybe, but we really don’t know for sure.”
I was not surprised to see that the group at the Map seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the dark-haired little girl, and now they were smiling at her little brother, who had begun to nibble the lower right-hand corner of his boarding pass.
These children, though. Each one such an effervescing package of promise, creativity, and potential. They and their families are living proof that we have so much in common with Titanic passengers, which included one hundred thirty-three children and their families—the same surge of new life and the ever-present hope and plans that define us now just as they did more than a hundred years ago.
In truth, this ever-present surge is always with us, reminding us of the effervescing rhythms of the sea, of the constant movement of surf as it bubbles and stretches up a flat beach. Just as it always has in every era of human history, and long before humans were here.
We are part of this eternal cycle. The Titanic allows us to look from the perspective of a hundred years or so ahead of Titanic’s era, feeling this ever- present tug as we consider just how closely Titanic passengers resemble who we are now, in our own time. As a matter of fact, we today, and Titanic passengers in 1912, resemble all humans who have ever struggled toward life upon this planet, Earth, where our species was first begun.
Titanic Museum Attraction guests and I often reach out together through imagination. For a few moments we linger at the port in Southampton, England, pretending that we are Titanic’s first passengers waiting for the great ship to appear.
There is a ripple in the crowd as the first among us catch a glimpse of the Titanic steaming toward us with a calm, magnificent pace, growing ever larger as it approaches.
“Imagine,” I say to our guests, “how overwhelming it is for citizens of 1912 to catch their first glimpse of a vessel that dwarfs previous ships. Titanic is nearly twice the size, and she has a new, futuristic design.
“We would have to imagine our reaction today to something that suddenly appears on the Parkway outside our museum. Something beyond our experience.
“It seems to have sailed right off the page of a sketch completed by an artist who imagines some new technology of the future. For people of 1912, however, it is not a sketch. It is the actual, physical representation of that breathtaking new idea of what the future will hold.”
Electricity is another exciting technology that causes Titanic passengers to feel swept into the future.
Today, we seldom think about how the abundance of electricity onboard Titanic creates such a dizzying effect.
It is worth noting that today’s technology has come so far that we have become numb to technologies that—though they thrilled the world a hundred years ago—are commonplace today.
Electricity was not universally available in 1912. There were even parts of America that did not have electricity until later in the twentieth century. For many of Titanic’s passengers—including the Irish and the Eastern Europeans—Titanic might be their first experience of electric lights.
Think of that!
The Titanic has four massive electric dynamos producing more electricity than many power plants of the early twentieth century. There are ten thousand lights, and they emit a cleaner, brighter light than most people are accustomed to in 1912.
No wonder passengers feel as though they have been swept decades ahead into the future!
Even passengers in First Class and Second Class do not take electric lights for granted.
No doubt, White Star Line is aware of how light can dramatically affect how we perceive our world. Perhaps this explains why the company sought out new glass for the famous dome. This skylight overarches the top of the ship. Visible from A-Deck, the dome features milk glass.
Previous ships included similar skylights. However, earlier skylights tended to be stained glass, which produces a darker light. White Star Line wanted a clean, clear light. Milk Glass translates daylight so that it presents a fullness and clarity not seen until the Titanic.
“Can you imagine,” I ask our guests, “the sheer wonder of entering the A-Deck of the Grand Staircase? Certainly, there is impressive elegance. Shimmering crystal chandeliers, for example. And the balustrades are hand-carved woods. Twenty-four karat gold-leaf covered medallions catch the eye, and much more.
“But a fullness of light surpassing anything you’ve experienced on a ship, much less in your home. It is nearly a physical blow to your senses.”
And yes, even at night the ship glows everywhere with its thousands of clear lights. Even the Grand Staircase skylight is backlit with electric lights at night or on cloudy days. This is a dramatic accomplishment for 1912. Only the Titanic, with its four huge electric dynamos, can assail the senses with such wondrous light.
But it does seem that we humans, in every era, become dull and numb with the technologies of the past. These technologies thrilled when they were new. However, they seem ho-hum today.
Size is another factor. What might have been enormous a hundred years ago does not overwhelm us today. We require larger and larger creations before we are awed.
Our guests, for example, sometimes express the opinion that our Grand staircase is smaller than they expect it to be. We did use the original blueprints, though. Our staircase is precisely the same size.
Our modern ships dwarf the Titanic. Modern cargo ships, for example, are like floating islands in the sea.
Who knows what the future will bring?
It may be, however, that the Titanic inspires us less for its technology than for our universal longing in every era to reach toward this something we sense just beyond our outstretched fingers.
Today, more than a hundred years after Titanic inspired the world, we sense a vast ocean of Time. It is as though we are riding the swells of the ocean just as the Titanic did in April of 1912. We are always stretching, always reaching.
Perhaps the most significant territory that remains to be discovered in our future involves ideas of who we are as humans and what we are becoming. In every era we create our great ships, our wondrous new technologies. We reach toward new adventures, new wonders, and unexplored frontiers.
As I experience the full range of Titanic Museum Attraction, which for me includes the guests, the people, the human beings of our day, I cannot help myself. I return to the idea that we have much in common with all those humans who have lived before us on this fragile planet with its delicate ecosystems, atmosphere, and the oceans that we have barely even begun to explore.
One fact concerning the Titanic that we usually do not discuss or think about involves the beginnings of how our species has damaged the oceans. It appears that all the waste products, the sewage, was simply discharged from the Titanic—and other ships—into the sea. Today, most of us would cringe at the thought. I hope that we are becoming more aware. And yet, sadly, one part of what we have in common with humans of the Titanic’s era is this pesky tendency to pollute.
No, ships today do not discharge sewage into the oceans. Or at least they’re not supposed to. However, we are polluting the oceans in all sorts of ways. If I were to put a finger on what it is that defines us in every age, it would include this tendency not to care about how we are damaging the fragile ecosystems of our planet.
Or, perhaps we do care on one level. But then our eagerness to have what we feel we need surpasses whatever caring we have. Isn’t it interesting that our drive to reach beyond ourselves, to explore and to achieve new knowledge, technologies, and abilities often damages our planet? We are like eager, precocious and reckless children in our impatient, self-centered rush toward the exhilarating new frontiers that we discover in every era.
And of course, the Titanic is a symbol for that stretch, that rush forward. There it is, magnificent, a thing of breathtaking beauty, a new design that suggests the future and new, thrilling technology for its day.
Another part of this sense of the stretch forward includes the movers and shakers who were part of Titanic’s maiden voyage. Many of these wealthy men would gather in the First sClass smoking room, snipping off the ends of fat cigars before lighting and puffing them.
We should not ignore First Class women, many of whom were pushing back against the limitations placed upon them by expectations of the day. Women were put on pedestals and admired for their beauty. the implicit message of the day, however, was that women should allow the men to dominate the professions, politics, government.
Women could not even vote in 1912. Among the women on board were Margaret Tobin Brown and Helen Candee, just to name two, who were beginning to prod these men, secure in their manly kingdoms, their clubs of privilege. Margaret Brown, a.k.a. the Unsinkable Molly Brown, ran for the U.S. Senate—a woman candidate even before women had the right to vote. Helen Candee wrote what was for the time a scandalous book for its day: How Women May Earn a Living.
Certainly, the twentieth century began a significant revolution where women are concerned. It was in the Titanic era often referred to as Women’s Suffrage. Later it was simply the Women’s Movement.
But that is another of the human markers that define us. In every age, our attitudes and assumptions are shifting. We hope we are growing more mature, more perceptive, less conceited and selfish. Whatever strides we make come with great battles, upheavals. Perhaps they are growing pains.
The Titanic was, indeed, the floating palace Bruce Ismay and Lord Pirrie initially set out to build. but it was also a floating cross-section of evolving humanity. In this collection of humans from the poorest to the wealthiest, we see ourselves. Titanic is a snapshot of who we were then, which is not so different from who we are now: all our wrinkles, blemishes, and warts as well as the best of what we are striving to become. And that is a large part of why the Titanic continues to fascinate us today.