New Museum: SeaCity Museum, Southampton
© Innes Marlow photography
There is a famous black-and-white image of a Southampton paperboy holding a poster with the stark headline: “Titanic’s last hour – vivid story.”
The Titanic Story exhibition at the newly opened SeaCity Museum hopes to expand on that: it tells the Titanic’s story in a highly visual way that projects visitors into the sights and sounds of April 1912, starting from the bustling docks of poverty-stricken Southampton and concluding with a reconstruction of the court room where the damning British Inquiry took place
The SeaCity Museum used to be Southampton’s Civic Centre. It’s a huge building but, in just one of many inspired comparisons in the exhibition, the Titanic Story reveals that the Titanic was actually six metres taller than that.
“She was the finest ship I had ever seen,” said Able Seaman Joseph Scarrot. The Southern Daily Echo described how the Titanic’s masts and funnels could be seen towering above the town’s trees and houses. She was a sublime, skyscraper of a ship that represented the pinnacle of British shipbuilding.
Standing outside the SeaCity Museum, craning your neck up (and up), you realise why the Titanic was considered indestructible, and you can begin to imagine the shock and panic that went through Southampton on 14 April 1912, when news arrived that the ship had sunk.
The Titanic Story begins by leading visitors past a mosaic of pictures of crew members who died. The name, age and job descriptions only give hints as to what their lives might have been like on-board the Titanic: titles range from plate stewards and confectioners to First Officers.
The exhibition continually relates information back to Southampton, showing visitors what the pre-launch preparations were like through interactive displays and floor-to-ceiling photographs of the Titanic moored at White Star Dock.
Particularly effective is the large cross-section of the Titanic’s hull, which reveals that the ship was carrying everything that a passenger might require, including 1750 quarts of ice cream, 411 cases of shelled walnuts, three cases of window frames, 25,000 towels, two cases of tennis balls and four cases of opium.
One crewmember recounted his memories of the first-class passengers’ balls: “It was one merry party…oh, they had a fine time.”
The graphics help make the Titanic Story digestible for adults and children alike. There are small porthole-style doors at a range of different eye-levels.
Visitors can open them and view rescued artefacts that include a pocket watch preserved exactly as it stopped, minutes before the Titanic sank.
The Titanic’s final hours are told through a series of audio interviews with local survivors. Edith Haisman’s account from her memories as an eight-year-old child is particularly chilling.
She begins: “You could see the ice for miles across the sea. I thought it was wonderful to see the ice like that.”
When remembering the events with her mother, Edith would recall the sound of the exploding boiler room. “I always said how awful that sound was but Mother replied, ‘Remember the silence after.’”
This quiet room is filled with voiced memories: the sound of the suction of the ship as it went down; the panic heard across the icy sea by passengers on retreating lifeboats; how children had to be lifted onto rescue boats in mail sacks because they couldn’t climb the rope ladders.
There is a gallery of photographs that capture the Southampton survivors who returned home, taken by local architect and surveyor William Burrough-Hill. Printed on the floor is a town map, a red stamp on every household who lost a family member in the disaster.
Charles Morgan remembered that “a great hush descended on the town…there was hardly a single street in Southampton that hadn’t lost somebody on that ship.”
The British Inquiry was held up in London, but the court room is reconstructed in the penultimate room of the Titanic Story.
The reconstructed interviews with surviving crewmembers heard overhead are damning: “Could you have filled the lifeboats more when they were in the water?” “Undoubtedly.”
While it takes a room or two for the Titanic Story to get into its stride - the following six members of the crew motif never quite pans out - the SeaCity’s Titanic Story is a well-conceived, interactive exhibition.
Indeed, there can be no better place than Southampton to remember both those who died and those who survived the Titanic’s first and final voyage.
- Open 10am-5pm (except December 25-26, January 1). Admission £6-£8.50 (free for under-5s, family ticket £25, joint ticket with Tudor House and Garden £11.50/£7.50).