New York Titanic exhibit opens 24 June


Jim Kalafus

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NEW YORK EXHIBIT, part one:

“You tell ME to buy a ticket? THAT’S my option! I think you’re very rude.”

I’m at the ticket window at the Discovery Center, in the former New York Times Building, listening with rapt fascination as the man at the next window tries to browbeat the college-age woman behind the counter into letting him in for free. He’s a member of the press, ya see. Or so he says, as he brandishes a press card at such a distance that binoculars would be needed to read it from behind the counter. The woman believes him about as much as I do, and holds her ground.

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“I want the name of whoever runs this exhibit. He’ll HEAR about this, This is ridiculous.”

She gives him the name, looking utterly unruffled.

She is doing well, so I feel no need to intercede as I often do in cases such as this. However, it is tempting to ask “Why don’t you ask to speak with the manager, who is sitting in an office two feet away from us, and who can resolve this in seconds?” and “If you really ARE press, why did you not phone the press liason for the Discovery Center and set this up in advance?”

He storms out, angrily. Nice try, buddy.

I had an advance-purchase ticket, for the 5 o’clock Sunday entrance. Checked myself into the Millennium Hotel, got a 34th floor room with great view of the Paramount Tower at Times Square...

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... and while waiting to cross Seventh Avenue, in a city of 8 million residents and about 4 million tourists, ran into my friend, Danny, hailing a cab downtown. So, plans got put on hold, I joined him and Marty, my friend and Morro Castle project collaborator, for dinner at Co., and we went up to Titanic afterwards.

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A mob awaits the appearance of Angela Lansbury in Schubert Alley, across the street from the Discovery Center. Miss Lansbury is very fan friendly, and after her performance in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, will come out to sign autographs and pose for pictures that can be shown to folks back at home: “Look I met Angela Lansbury. She’s as nice in person as she is on television.”

The other show at the Discovery Center is Lucy’s Legacy. I note that the photo of her they have selected for window display is singularly unflattering- possibly taken during the production of Stone Pillow or Life With Lucy - and wonder why this Leaky fellow felt the need to contact her via a trip to Africa rather than thru her agent. It seems rather stalkerish and improbable.

And so, the angry faux-reporter storms out, and we go over to look at the large Titanic fragment that has been placed in the lobby as a teaser for the exhibit. Lucy fans, waiting to enter her exhibit, get to admire the Eccentric Strap from one of the reciprocating engines; a metal circle of perhaps 4 feet diameter, safely displayed behind glass. Or, more likely, plexiglass.

The Titanic exhibit is one floor down. Without even having to consult one another, we dodge the souvenir photo op at the head of the line. One is given a boarding pass at the door and- DAMMIT- out of 2203 possible people, I get my second least favorite survivor after Lightoller- Colonel Archibald Gracie, blowhard...

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... Danny is pleased to get Benjamin Guggenheim.

One enters the exhibit thru a circular, darkened, gallery in which Pulbaum’s Water Witch stock certificate is displayed in a spotlit case. Beyond that is a second gallery devoted to the genesis of the ship. Blowups of Ismay; the deck plan; the Harland and Wolfe drafting room; and the gantry line the walls. The first thing one sees is a collection of postcards recovered from Pulbaum’s bag, including an advance promo card for the 1915 San Francisco Exposition. Further in to the gallery is a display case with a large jam nut gear wrench, showing some effects of immersion, a line coils fuse terminal box lid manufactured by Albert Graham, London, and a gear wheel of perhaps a foot in diameter.

The first large gallery is actually a fusion of two concepts. Launching to the left, and sailing day to the right. This is the first laden with artifacts area one encounters. The logometer from the ship’s log line. The forward mast head light. The ship’s whistles. Rivets. Howard Irwin’s leather suitcase (Or is it? It is displayed with the contents of Irwin’s wallet, among which are Toronto trolley tickets, but nowhere does it say “Recovered from this suitcase” leaving me to wonder if, in fact, it all was) and a non-Titanic wardrobe trunk intended to give those who have never seen one an impression of what first class travel entailed.

I find the room interesting from a historical and scientific perspective. The sight of immersion damage on the artifacts is oddly captivating. I have a brief, fond, thought of George Tulloch. Yet, a half hour into the exhibit I don’t feel any connection to the disaster.

And- DAMMIT- there is piped in music and, worse, it is Riverdance-like. Meant to impart an Irish feel to the Belfast- and Southampton, since the sound bleeds across the room- segments. A minor irritant if one is passing thru, it is a MAJOR irritant if one wants to study what is on display. Life is not a movie or a sitcom. It does not require a soundtrack. NO ONE LEAVES A MUSEUM THINKING “DAMN. I WISH IT HAD MUZAK.” And, especially not an annoyingly repetitive tape loop of Riverdance.

I think to myself “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” or “Great Big Beautiful Doll” will be playing in the first class segments. And grit my teeth.

One then “boards” the Titanic thru a gangway and, with unintentional irony, finds oneself in third class. The third class cabin replica depicts a four berth room larger than my first class studio cabin aboard the 1962 France was. Spartan, but not unpleasant when seen in color and 3-D. On display are a berth plaque, from berth #2 in some unknown cabin, a cabin key, a clothing hook and a doorknob and latch mechanism.

Moving on, we entered a small gallery which displayed personal effects that fell out of first class cabins as the ship broke up. A portfolio bag and a pair of rubberized men’s shoes. Photos of Astor/Gibson/Guggenheim/Straus on the wall. And, display cases filled with… trivia.. . that, to my surprise, I find quite moving and suddenly causes me to connect with the disaster. Combs, brushes, the casing from a plastic “Royal Ivore” travel clock. A jar of cherry toothpaste. Small, necessary, things that, on April 15th 1912, were present and left behind at the moment their owners’ lives changed forever. Some intact, others immersion damaged.

The sense of connection was lost with the following gallery, which I found technically and historically interesting, but distancing on an emotional level.

If one had to name the room, it could be termed The Lavish Area. Views of Café Parisien/ a la carte restaurant/ first class smoking room line the walls, along with mega-sized blowups of three menus; one from each class. There is representative china, showing minimal damage, displayed, as well as a selection of passenger jewelry. The jewelry, I note, is not of heirloom quality and I strongly suspect that the original owners never mourned its loss. Nothing is monogrammed. Nothing is antique by 1912 standards. The word “Bling” comes to mind, and so I do not connect with the original owner, or the disaster, as I look at it. Yet, I am glad to be seeing it. The feat that its recovery and preservation represents is what is impressed upon me.

A cracked, but not shattered light bulb, next to a stressed gimbal lamp, reaches me in a way that the bling and the china fails to.

The far side of The Lavish Room represents the nadir of the exhibit. The one point at which I do sneer. Eric Longo has warned me of a design or, rather, layout stupidity in this section and it immediately hits me in the face. A well preserved, but stressed, table base from the smoking room stands in front of a huge blow up of the a la carte restaurant. Fifty feet away is a huge blowup of the smoking room, clearly showing the same table base with original, ingenious, accoutrements intact. You cannot, of course, shift your eyes between 1912 photo and 2009 reality at a distance of 50 feet, and so a great potential effect is lost.

Worse, is the cabin mock-up. I think it is supposed to be Helene Baxter’s cabin. It is very yellow. It has first class reading and writing room chairs in it. It has a pink outfit of sorts hanging on the wardrobe room door. It has REALLY cheap looking painted glass replicas in the window area. The effect is anti-historic… it reminds me of a display area in a high end department store flogging “Edwardiana.” It is glossy, and pretty, and Victorian bed and breakfast, and it makes me wince.

Facing it is a lovely gilded lead grill, with immersion patina intact and with its end dramatically bent upwards. That small object, beautiful on two separate levels, said more about the ship and the disaster than the ghastly cabin replica.

And, yes, “Great Big Beautiful Doll” plays on an endlessly repeating loop. I am very aware of it as I examine a first class cabin sink, intact but stressed, marked “Doulton & Co. Limited. Sanitary Engineer Works Lambeth London and Paisley.” I wonder about White Star allowing such an obvious product placement blurb in a top of the line cabin. It’s in a neat, shield, pattern, but its an advert nevertheless.

We step from the Lavish Room into a replica of the B-Deck first class hallway. The only authentic item in this area is a gilded, extremely ornate, damaged wall sconce. The cabin doors depicted are B 102-106, and B-66-62. “Great Big Beautiful Doll” plays at a volume a notch or two below uncomfortably loud. Since there is only one 1912 item in this area, we are not compelled to linger and listen to it. But, the hallway repro is a lot better than the Baxter cabin mock-up.
 

Jim Kalafus

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PART 2.

A small gallery displays a cache of photography items. Among them is a photo envelope marked C.R. Savage: Salt Lake City. I mentally index Utah, and come up with Irene Corbett, victim. No way, of course, to prove that this was hers, but still…

Nearbye sits a crushed water-boiler and its ceramic interior. The back of the ceramic liner is intact, the front shattered. Photos of the LaRoche family, Father Byles and Lawrence Beesley are on the wall.

The final room on this level is the Verandah café. Bottles, china, silver are displayed. All in considerably worse condition than that in the Lavish Room. A copper, elongated, rectangular Art-nouveau, serving tray, somewhat bent and with a verdigris patina, is the first object I’ve seen in the exhibit that reaches me on a purely aesthetic level : I’d have in my own home. Beside it is a crushed Art-nouveau teapot.

At the farthest reach of the room is the ironwork from one of the dining room/reception room connecting doors. Mostly intact, but with a crushed corner.

Beside me, a father and teenage daughter are trying to come up with the survival/ fatality numbers for the disaster. I tell them, and this drives home something I’ve not, ‘til this point, noticed. There are security guards, but no interpreters in the exhibit. Unless you buy the audio tour (none of us did) you are strictly on your own. And, of course, the audio tour cannot answer any questions beyond the obvious.

Downstairs, we enter a smallish, u-shaped, gallery. The docking telephone from the aft bridge stands at the base of the stairs. On the far wall is a quote from Edith Russell. In front of this quote is a case which might be termed The Ugly Display; in it are some hideous Faience vases in oxblood, and some garish china. These are the first really unattractive authentic items we’ve come across.

More aesthetically pleasing is a green cooking oil bottle, with a long neck and an ovoid body. It has a nice patina, and some oil remains in the bottom. The vases are laughably ghastly, and this mundane object remarkably beautiful.

The base of the grand staircase cherub statue, sans cherub, leads into The Grand Staircase reproduction.

Now, ever since we were in the Verandah Café, the P.A. system has been emitting a weird, metal-fatigue, groaning noise at intervals. In this room, Strauss plays (endlessly) and so, too, does the metal fatigue noise. We enter the room at a point at which it is empty and….DAMMIT… the effect, which should be cheesy, works, if only for a few seconds. If one ignores the flattened dome overhead and the rather-too-Home Depot lighting fixtures.

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We then walk thru a dark, L-shaped hall, with two large chunks of authentic Titanic coal and a repro watertight door, and enter a room dedicated to the collision.

Probably by intention, the collision room has the most violently stressed objects seen thus far. A smashed compass bowl. A smashed deck lamp. The door to a safe. Binoculars “probably” belonging to a passenger. Quotes from Steward Wareham and Charlotte Collyer on the wall, jarring, if you’ve never read them before. An animated recreation of the collision plays via monitor.

A replica of the iceberg, in ice, somewhat lessens the reverent effect created by the violently damaged articles and the quotes. “Great,” I think to myself “an opportunity to touch ice, for the benefit of those who never have.” But, I touch the ice. It’s cold. It’s very solid. It leaves my hand feeling clammy. I now know the touch of ice…

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The next display is, for me, the most telling. A davit, and lowering mechanism, stands displayed upright against a black background. For the first time since the passenger personal effect trivia display, I am in the presence of something that inspires near- awe. There is no way of knowing to which boat this was attached, other than that it was one of the aft eight. But, in a literal sense, this object was the bridge to survival, and the line of demarcation between life and death. If one stands to its right and looks up, one has the perspective of those who survived. If one stands to its left, one has the perspective of those who did not. The aft boats were, by and large, lowered later in the disaster sequence than most of the forward boats and, whatever took place in the vicinity of this davit must have been harrowing. I’m not a believer in “vibes;” impressions come entirely from within the mind; and there is a very distinct feeling of sadness around this display. I don’t really want to be by it, yet find myself stepping back repeatedly to look at it.

In the same gallery are several stacks of au gratin dishes, still embedded in sand: the shelves which once held them having rotted away. There is also the frame to a deck bench- Danny points out the dolphin pattern on the leg where once it joined the deck. One frame is intact, the other crushed inwards into almost shape. The ships telegraph stands in the middle of the room. And, I walk back to the davit again.

All thru the exhibit, despite the NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs, people have been blatantly taking pictures. Having been born under the sign of “You’ll Always Get Caught” I have resisted. I lift my digital out of my pocket, knowing that if I hold it to my eyes I will immediately be the one who is pounced on and ejected, and take a few Ruth Snyder Execution-style shots with the lens just above my pocket line.

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In this room, there is also a piece of Titanic hull you are allowed to touch.

The final room has an equally odd “vibe” to it. Personal effects , some of which can be linked to a specific person, some anonymous, line the walls and fill the central display cases. A pair of delicate, gold framed glasses. A man’s hat, maintaining its shape but damaged by long immersion. Perfume sample vials belonging to Adolph Saalfield, who survived. A damask bag belonging to victim Marion Meanwell, 62. Inside her bag was a collection of papers pertaining to herself and her family. Items of too much sentimental or practical (her insurance policy) value to place in her checked luggage. Did she leave them behind with regret, if she left her cabin late? Did she step out of her cabin early on, to investigate, with no thought of danger, and never return? Or, did she carry the bag, full of her documentation and family memorabilia, with her, a logical plan if one intended on boarding a lifeboat, only to lose it as everyone was thrown forward and downward at the end? Some items belonging to Edgar Andrew, teenage victim who shared a dining room table with survivor Edwina Troutt. An anonymous pair of pants and vest, light colored with Chevron pattern, intact except for some discoloration. A tribute to Millvina Dean. This room is sobering but, with the exception of Mrs. Meanwell’s bag, not sad in the same way the davit was. Because, like the earlier display of passenger effects, this was all material that was left behind by the owners. It is directly connected to them but only Mrs. Meanwell’s bag might have remained with its owner until the last seconds. Again, I don’t enjoy looking at that particular item, but can’t turn away from it, either.

We exit the exhibit, agreeing that it was excellent. Marty and Danny depart, and I head off to the top of the G.E. Building, at Rockefeller Center, to view the nightscape…
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So, what did I think? Well.. It was different than I expected. In considerably better taste than Branson. And with only a few things which induced groans (that cabin…the iceberg… piped in music), it was an intelligent although, in truth, very mainsteam exhibit. Which is logical enough when you are aiming for huge crowds ~ innovative display and lighting have to be sacrificed in the name of customer flow-thru. It won't win any awards for innovation in design, but is user friendly. So, yes, it was satisfying and, yes, I would recommend it without reservation.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>“Look I met Angela Lansbury. She’s as nice in person as she is on television.”

Unless, of course, if as she is signing your programme, the person standing behind you starts yelling "Hey, Mrs. Fletcher! Hey, Mrs. Santa Claus!" In which case she can give a look that can melt rock, as this photo a friend took in Schubert Alley as she was signing his programme attests:

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And, NO, it was not me who antagonized Miss Lansbury...

...really...
 

Jim Kalafus

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Ah, yer welcome. here's something ye haven't seen yet.

The address on Mrs. Meanwell's insurance policy was 100 Lexington Avenue, NYC. (East 27th Street, N.W. corner) The current heart of Little India, the place to go if you like authentic Indian food AS EATEN by people from India, plus hard to find spices...etc. In the mood to do some exploring after a day doing archival Lusitania research (successful) I headed down to see if the house is still there.

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It is, and again, it isn't. #100, right at the corner, was refaced and, to judge by the windows, at some point in the 1960s.

Had Mrs. Meanwell lived, and maintained her address for another four years, she would have witnesses the greatest event in 20th Century American art history... the 1916 Armory show that introduced modernism to NY and America, which took place at Lexington and East 26th. The armory looks exactly as it did then:

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A great event, marking the moment at which the dreaded White City look, and period piece schlock, finally began to wane dramatically.

Speaking of period piece, how's this for contrast. Two blocks down the Square from the Titanic exhibition stands John Jacob Astor's old Knickerbocker Hotel, surprisingly intact after 88 years as an office building and 20 as a hotel. The very last Gilded Age building at the Square, and the perfect foil for the excellent post-modernist building across the street.

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Its rival, the Hotel Astor, created by John's dreaded cousin, was far more successful, and has been gone from Times Square since 1968.
 
Jan 29, 2001
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In recognition of Jim Kalafus's fine posting in regards to the New York Titanic artifact exhibit, I wish to respond to Part 1. --

Your "short story" was so concise, and harkened back to the Ken Marchall articles in regards to his dive to Britannic aboard the NR-1, a feeling of riding abord the sub (THS commutator), also your write-up gave me a feeling of attendance in NY. It is my hope to one-day see the eccentric strap, in more than just pictures. The salvaged logometer, I have seen only once in the children's book "Titanic" (Simon Adams) featuring recovered artifacts. Now, a favorite artifact of mine...a gilded lead grill. I first saw a grill, not the bent one of which you saw, in a newspaper article (my collectin is vast) headed "Titanic's first artifacts unveiled by lab working on restoration" in which a large photograph of Jacques Montlucon, spokesman for the Electricite de France laboratory, is shown holding the grill all the while attired in conservators gloves. I believe this particular grill is in a U.K. museum exhibit. I concur with you on the grills representation.

Here's thanking you Jim, will respond to your part 2 when time allows. And what? No epilogue chapter...;-)

Michael Cundiff
NV, USA
 

Jim Kalafus

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The epilogue was on my Facebook page. The following morning, my room service breakfast was interrrupted by an announcement from the hotel safety director that...uhhh... maybe the hotel is on fire, maybe it isn't. They are checking to see why the alarm system triggered and, btw, the elevators have been disabled and we are not to leave our rooms to investigate, or flee, until we are told it is safe to do so. So, I sit, 34 floors up, and send emails via my laptop. And, eventually, we are given an all clear.

Renee and Henry Harris' Hudson Theatre is darkened for the duration of my visit. It is part of the hotel:

http://www.millenniumhotels.com/millenniumnewyork/other/index.html

But, the only part one can easily see is the former lobby, now VIP check-in.

I go to J.J. Astor's St. Regis Hotel, but the lobby is crowded and rendered temporarily unphotogenic.

In a city of weird cab drivers, Marty, Danny, and I have one of the all-time weirdest.

After three years of trying, I get a key piece of unpublished Lusitania material. Do an undignified victory dance that gets me banned from that particular archive pending my hearing.

At "a very expensive restaurant," I am blessed to have "Skippy: The Waiter Who Doesn't Have To Write Anything Down." I tend to meet him a lot, and he always screws up my order. My $26 order of eggs 'n' mushrooms is, of course, screwed up. A bit later I hear a crabby old WASP bawling the guy out, for the same reason.

For some reason, women nude except for 1960s body paint, have descended on Times Square. Traffic on Broadway is shut off above, and at, the Square. It's now a giant, very crowded and lively, pedestrian mall. I sit out until about 2AM, enjoying the good vibes.

I buy some sandwiches at Pret a Manger, and picnic atop the GE/RCA Building.

All very mellow, and only tangentally linked, at best, to the Titanic, or my research.
 
Jan 29, 2001
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...jumping ahead to Jim's epilogue chapter...of recent, one night a friend and I were staying at the Renaissance, a five star hotel in the Bay area of CA. We had a two bed room with the typical goose down comforting. After a cocktail or two it was lights out...I then told my friend "I am going to have one of the best nights sleep ever". However, as in Jim's case the smoke detectors are automatically deployed upon detection of smoke in the hotel (owing to the tragedy in a LV, NV hotel). So hrs. later in a deep sleep & dreaming of Titanic...we were awakened by the overly loud smoke detector, my friend exclaimed..."Grab everything, they may ship us off to a seperate hotel". So, as in Jim's case again, we (last two out) made our way down the flight of stairs (Sorry Jim, only five in our case), only to meet the other sleepy eyed customers on their way up..."False alarm" they yellped. Seems there was a smoker in the NON-SMOKING facility...:-(

Michael Cundiff
NV, USA
 

Jim Kalafus

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The stairs, like the elevator, were not an option....

Many of the guests in the MGM Grand Vegas fire died because they quickly stepped out into the hall in their nightclothes, could not reach the stairs thru the smoke, and then discovered- with more often than not fatal results- that they had not taken their room key, and were trapped in the carbon monoxide filled halls. The safety director, and the NYFD, do not WANT mass evacuation unless no other option is possible.

So, everyone had to sit in their rooms and listen to the public address system. It was actually rather reassuring to witness it done in such a coherent and orderly fashion.

>The victory dance? Sounds like you earned the right!

It was Afro-Caribbean influenced, with touches of Celtic and, of course, the Frug. Just short of the most dramatic part, the reference librarian maced me, and continued to do so each time I stopped clawing at my eyes and tried to rise.

I'll be back in Manhattan two weekends from now. More Lusitania work and, possibly, another run thru the exhibit.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I'll be back in Manhattan two weekends from now. More Lusitania work...<<

I sense a new article in the making or an existing one in revision. Either way, I'm looking forward to what you found as soon as you're ready to share it.
 

Jim Kalafus

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The two existing articles have been largely rewritten. They ran 168 manuscript pages in total, in their original form. Over 300 pages of new accounts have been added to the piece, and about 20 pages of unneccesary verbiage eliminated from the originals.

The entire thing is being edited together and formatted now. But, the thing is, as it gets completed at one end, it begins growing again from the other. No release date in sight.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>But, the thing is, as it gets completed at one end, it begins growing again from the other. No release date in sight.<<

Sounds like the thing keeps mutating then. The inevitable consequence of ongoing research coming up with newer and better information.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>Either way, I'm looking forward to what you found as soon as you're ready to share it.

I just sent you an indicative chapter.
 

Deborah Kogan

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Jim: Thank you for your great review of the exhibit. I was there with a friend on Aug 1. This is my fifth exhibit. I always look to see what they have from Howard Irwin. In previous exhibits they had sheet music and a musical instrument. I found the mast head light, ironwork from a dining room door, the davit, and the ship's telegraph to be the most exciting items, for me. I have seen a number of items before, including the binoculars. I much appreciated being able to touch the piece of hull.... I loved your description of your victory dance (and aftermath) after finding that information. Ha!
 

Jim Kalafus

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Hello, Deborah: I'm glad that you enjoyed both the NYC exhibit and my write-up.

The reference librarian over-reacted slightly. About the best I can say is that THIS time it wasn't a taser.
 
Jan 29, 2001
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Deborah: Do you own the 1987 VHS "Explorers of the Titanic" (A. Lindsy)? I believe the ironwork of your mention, is shown at the sea-bottom before it's recovery, and Yann Houard who was, the Nautile deep-sea submersible pilot on that particular dive, is shown expressing his excitement when first spotting the ironwork, Houard exclaimed..."But it's so beautiful" to George Tulloch and attendants in the de-briefing room aboard the French R.V. Nadir.

Michael Cundiff
NV, USA
 

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