Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is Kansas City's Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition Really Worth A Trip To Union Station?

Heading Down to the Titanic Exhibition
A Look At Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition as it Docks in Kansas City For Its 100-Year Anniversary
“Is the Titanic exhibition worth going to see?” is the first question I am usually asked when people learn I have visited the popular attraction at Union Station.  My answer is yes.

The next question is then, “What do you actually see and how is it set up?”  That is a much longer answer, but I hope the following response is helpful. 

The exhibition, which includes more than 250 artifacts, begins on the bottom level of Union Station, where each person receives a boarding pass containing information about an actual passenger on Titanic.

(Note that you will be asked if, for an extra $5 per person, you would like to purchase the “accompanying audio tour,” which includes a hand-held device and a pair of headphones.  This is supposed to give you additional information while walking through the exhibition.  I did this, found it completely unnecessary, and thought it was a waste of money.)

After “boarding,” you are then filtered into an eerily darkened area with a light shining on a single artifact – the crow’s nest bell which once sat perched high up on Titanic, to be rung by a crew member if any danger was spotted up ahead.

It was rung three times on the fateful night of April 14, 1912, as the doomed words were simultaneously shouted, “Iceberg right ahead!”

While moving into the next gallery, cheerful orchestra music is heard, and the chronological story of Titanic’s short life begins with the building of the famous ship. 

A film about creating the massive vessel is played while you view an intricate model of Titanic.  This is also where you see the beginning of various artifacts, including a leather Gladstone bag with key, which remains unopened because of its delicate state.

More haunting artifacts come into sight as you wind into the next space.  Pieces of floor tile, coat hooks, ashtrays, a soap dish and faucets from the ship are displayed along with silverware, dishes and other items used by the crew and travellers on their fateful trip.

Large photos of the The Verandah Café (on A deck), the Titanic gymnasium, and several passengers adorn the walls as you inspect some of the evocative personal effects of those aboard the ship.

Jewelry, a hand mirror, a tobacco pipe, and even a cherry toothpaste jar complete with a lid decorated with a picture of young Queen Victoria are displayed, while you pass by a replica of an opulent first-class cabin on Titanic.

Spilling into the next gallery is a much different scene.  This is where you see a reproduction of a third-class room aboard Titanic, set up dorm-style with two sets of bunk beds.

Instead of music, visitors now begin to hear the steady throb of the ship’s engines around them and read about the many iceberg warnings issued and ignored by Titanic that evening. 

A large iron wrench and part of a catwalk stair tread are laid out as you pass through a mock watertight door (there were 15 of them on the six lowest decks) and into a replica of the hot, dirty boiler room where men, known as the “Black Gang” pumped tons of coal into the ship’s belly to try to keep up with Titanic’s veracious appetite.

Next, is the recreated mailroom, which was also located deep within the ship and employed five workers.  The actual Titanic mailroom carried over 3,000 mail sacks and seven million pieces of mail. 

The massive ship also carried other miscellaneous and valuable cargo including a 1912 Renault automobile. 

At this point, you learn that Titanic was travelling 21 knots, close to top speed, as Captain Smith presided over a gala and dinner on its last night above the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Bottles of beer, wine, and even champagne (with champagne still in it) can be seen to signify the carefree attitude of passengers and crew.

A Photo of Captain Smith and the Titanic Officers
The mood becomes more somber and tense as you enter the reproduced Captain’s Bridge where Smith and his officers commanded the speed and direction of the ship. 

The steering wheel stand from the wheelhouse dominates the room along with a photo and information about the overly confident Captain Smith. 

You also experience how dark it was that night when you look through the windows of the bridge. Stars are visible, but little else, including the iceberg that gashed Titanic’s side.

First-class passenger, George A. Harder described the collision as “Just a dull thump,” but you realize it was much more serious as a buckled porthole, cracked window from the officer’s quarters, sheet music for a clarinet, and a leather boot stamped with EWP on its heel stare back at you while an unsettling whale-like sound is heard all around you in the next area.

An imitation iceberg also occupies the space, which you are allowed to touch, as Titanic’s last moments afloat are recreated. 

An animation of the “unsinkable” ship filling with water and slipping under the cold Northern Atlantic waves plays on the wall showing that at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the mighty Titanic met its watery fate.

The exhibition then begins to focus on the discovery of the Titanic wreckage, which was found on September 1, 1985, a long 73 years after it succumbed to its tragic destiny.

A full-scale model of the shipwreck, stoically perched in two parts on the ocean floor, is presented and fascinating to examine.

Better yet, there is a thick fragment of Titanic’s actual hull set out that visitors are allowed to touch.

Several au gratin dishes, which were lined up like dominos on the ocean floor, are displayed in the same position that they were found, along with other poignant artifacts recovered from the wreck.

Sadly, this gallery also focuses on the inevitable fact that the fragile Titanic is disintegrating and will probably implode on itself within the next 40-90 years.

The last portion of the exhibition presents personal items from specific passengers, some who survived, and some who did not.  

These personal effects include perfume samples with perfume still in them, a linen handkerchief, a silk necktie, a pocketknife and many more moving items.

A memorial wall also comes into sight.  Here, you can check the name on the boarding pass you received at the beginning of the exhibition to determine if “your person” survived.

One hundred twenty five first-class passengers, one hundred sixty eight second class passengers, five hundred twenty nine third-class passengers, and seven hundred one crew members tragically perished that night when the “unsinkable” Titanic slipped beneath the frigid Atlantic waters.

A small tribute dedicated to Millvina Dean, the last known Titanic survivor who passed away in 2009, also adorns an appropriate space near the memorial wall. 

After the unbelievable loss of the massive ship, hearings were held to determine the cause of Titanic’s sinking and how to improve maritime safety in the future. 

Photos of those hearings and information about new safety requirements put into place as a result of Titanic’s sinking, such as a special radio frequency for ships and enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers, occupy the end of the artifact exhibition.

Additionally, as you leave, there is a visitor book, which you may sign.

If you do plan on going through the exhibition, know that no photography is allowed, it takes roughly a little less than two hours to explore, and it will be at Union Station through September 3, 2012.

If you would like to know more about ticket prices and hours, check out Visit KC  for further information.


  1. Nice article. Sounds interesting.

  2. What a great article. I've been trying for months to get to this exhibit and now the motivation to go and get my boarding pass is here; my next destination: ticket office. Amy writes so vividly I will probably be hit with deja vu as I tour the Titanic exhibit....I will comment after I get back.

  3. Can't wait to hear your comments after you go. Enjoy the exhibit!

  4. Amy, what a great article! I was hoping and hoping as I read that the exhibit is still in town (I don't get out much...I hadn't heard about it. Duh.)

    I wanna go!

  5. Thanks Julie! I hope you enjoy the exhibit

  6. Amy, I saw the exhibit yesterday. Your very accurate description of it was compelling, and the exhibit was no less so. It was haunting. I'm still thinking about the loss of life and what life must have been like for those who survived without their loved ones.

    One element of the show that I found most beneficial was the context it gave of life as it was at that time. At the beginning of the exhibit there were replicas of the newspaper at the time, as well as clothing and accounts of what existed in Kansas City during those years - for example, Electric Park, which was one of the first amusement parks to have electric lighting. It was most helpful to be able to put the disaster into the context of what was available at the time, and the parts of life we take for granted now that did not exist then.

  7. Amy, I wasn't quite finished, but I ran out of words!

    The part that I think they glossed over was what happened as people tried to survive immediately after the collision. The lifeboat fiasco, how people were trapped on the ship - they addressed this by the numbers, but gave no details about what it was like for the people who went through it. It must have been horrific. But the exhibit did not show this.

    BTW, tell Mary that Ostler's father did not survive. Sigh.

  8. I also liked how the exhibit gave you an idea of what was going on in Kansas City and what life was like in general at the time of the Titanic disaster - before you actually entered the exhibit. It gave the whole thing a bit more perspective. I also agree with you about the survivors right after the disaster - I am sure there were many interesting stories to be told by people in the lifeboats. It was all such a tragedy! Thanks for your great comments!