A hand holds a personal boarding pass received at entrance to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.
Step aboard Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition with a personal boarding pass. Photo courtesy of RMS Titanic, Inc.

A young James Penca was on a field trip to a Titanic exhibit in 2002. The experience changed his life.

Now a grownup Titanic historian and consultant at RMS Titanic, Inc., Penca was on hand to share his enthusiasm for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, a traveling exhibit opening on Saturday, Oct. 21, at Carnegie Science Center.

The exhibit covers everything from the idea stage to the ship’s construction to the discovery of the wreck more than two miles below the ocean surface. It includes 154 detailed artifacts, full-size stateroom and cabin recreations, huge photos of the grand design, plus footage of the ship under construction.

What exactly is it about the Titanic that holds our fascination 111 years after she sank?

“I’ve been into Titanic my entire life and I think I’ve cracked the code,” Penca says. “A big reason we are here, in short, is human beings are storytellers at heart. Since we were living in caves, since the Greeks basically invented theater, to Broadway to Hollywood, we love to tell stories. It is in my very well-researched opinion that … the story of Titanic is the greatest story of all time.”

This exhibition is all about stories, in which objects are tied to real people.

 “These artifacts take Titanic’s story off the page, off the movie screen, off the ocean floor, and put it in front of you,” Penca says. “And that’s what this exhibit is all about. Nothing can tell the story like the artifacts. They tell it far better than I ever could.”

Here are seven of the many reasons you should dive into this exhibition created by Experiential Media Group (E/M Group) and its affiliate RMS Titanic, Inc.

1. Your personal boarding pass

Each visitor receives a replica Star Line boarding pass with the name of a Titanic passenger. At the end of the exhibit, you scan your ticket to discover details about the passenger. You will learn where they were traveling from, why they were aboard the Titanic, and, most importantly, how they fared after the tragedy.

Touch the fabricated iceberg and get a sense of how cold the North Atlantic waters were on the night Titanic went down. Photo by Becky Thurner.

2. A touchable iceberg

How cold was the water? Because saltwater freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water, the North Atlantic Ocean registered about 28 degrees Fahrenheit on that fateful night. Most of those lost in the Titanic sinking did not drown; they died of hypothermia. The exhibit includes a frozen touchable iceberg that gives a fresh perspective on just how frigid that water must have been.

First-class staterooms were the epitome of luxury. Photo courtesy of RMS Titanic, Inc.

3. A peek at the lives of the rich and famous

No expense seemed to be spared for those passengers traveling in first class. The detailed design and craftsmanship rivaled that found in the best hotels. The large staterooms included private bathrooms and some had parlor rooms attached. The luxury came at a price, of course. A first-class ticket to New York was priced at $2,500 — about $79,000 today. The two most luxurious suites on the B Deck could be booked one way for $4,500 — more than $142,000 today.

Third-class cabins were a bit cramped but worth the ticket price. Photo by Becky Thurner.

4. Discover that steerage wasn’t a bad way to travel

The small third-class cabins included bunks for four passengers, most likely European immigrants who spoke different languages. Unlike other ocean liners, Titanic’s bunks had real mattresses and the ship included open-air space on the poop deck for third-class travelers. There were just two bathtubs for the 700 third-class folks, which seemed to work out in the era of weekly baths. But many of them, who never had indoor plumbing, were delighted by the bathroom facilities. Meals were included, with menu offerings like Roast Pork with Sage and Onions; Ragout of Beef, Potatoes and Pickles; Plum Pudding with Sweet Sauce; and Currant Buns. And the price was right: A third-class ticket ran $40, just over $1,200 today.

5. Feel the tension as you see repeated ice sightings

You know what’s coming, but walking through and facing the timeline of iceberg sightings from other ships builds a sense of foreboding. Below the surface, the iceberg tore six slits along a 300-foot span in the ship’s hull, opening five watertight compartments. Titanic’s designer, Thomas Andrews Jr., inspected the damage and reported that the ship could float with two watertight compartments flooded, and could handle the loss of the first four. But this destruction, he said, made sinking a “mathematical certainty.”

These gratin dishes were originally stacked in a wooden cabinet that landed intact on the sandy ocean surface. The wood decayed and rotted away, leaving the dishes carefully lined up in rows. Photo courtesy of RMS Titanic, Inc.

6. See what’s happening now

An entire room is dedicated to showing how experts treated the delicate objects retrieved from the Titanic’s field of debris on the ocean floor. The ship itself is covered with red-orange “ruscticles” that will eventually break down the wrecked ship, leaving it as an iron ore deposit on the ocean floor.

7. Snap a shot worthy of Rose and Jack

A ship prow in front of a green screen gives you and your friends the chance to play body doubles for Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, shouting “I’m king of the world!”

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition opens on Saturday, Oct. 21 and runs through Monday, April 15 at Carnegie Science Center. Tickets, separate from Science Center admission, are $20, $18 for seniors and $16 for ages 3-12 years. Discounts are available for combination tickets.

Sally Quinn is a Pittsburgh-based editor and writer who writes about food, entertainment, kid stuff, pop culture, cocktails!