Titanic exhibit to dock again at KC’s Union Station

For its next trick, Union Station will resurrect the Titanic.

A larger version of the traveling exhibit that was here a decade ago — with additional artifacts — will be in Kansas City when the world pauses to reflect on the 100th anniversary of the sinking.

Poignant evidence of the real thing will be here when director James Cameron releases a 3D IMAX version of his Oscar-winning film that romanticized the awful event.

“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” opens March 10 at Union Station, presented by the company that holds the exclusive right to the wreck site of the RMS Titanic.

For Union Station, the timing could not be better.

“We’re going to give the community the opportunity to see it when all the centennial chatter is going on,” said Jerry Baber, chief financial officer for the station.

The ocean liner, with luxury up top and poverty down below, struck an iceberg just before midnight on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 people perished in the freezing sea.

In the decades since, Titanic has become a brand with instant recognition and endless fascination.

People are still discovering connections. Ed Follis of Overland Park might not even be here if his great-aunt had used her ticket and boarded the Titanic. It was only in recent years that Follis learned from other family members that Nellie Finnegan planned to be in steerage on the doomed ship. If she had, she probably would have died and would not have had a boarding house in New York.

“It was there where my grandfather and grandmother met,” Follis said. “If Nellie hadn’t been running that boarding house, my grandparents would never have met.”

Finnegan had already immigrated to New York but had gone back to County Mayo in Ireland to get her family’s blessing to marry. She was to return on the Titanic but ran into a friend who had a ticket on the RMS Celtic, another ship in the White Star Line that was to leave a few days later. Finnegan traded in her Titanic ticket to join her friend on the Celtic.

Days later the Celtic received a wireless message from the Titanic: “I require immediate assistance. Position 41.46 N. 50.14 W.”

Follis is vice president of the Irish Museum & Cultural Center, which is located in Union Station and which plans to offer programming to complement the Titanic exhibit.

“A lot of people don’t realize the Titanic was built in Belfast with an Irish crew and its last port of call was on the south of Ireland,” said Nancy Wormington, executive director of the Irish Museum.

The first time Union Station had a Titanic exhibit was in 2001 when the renovated depot and Science City were relatively new. That exhibit still holds the station’s record for the largest attendance with more than 280,000, although the Dead Sea Scrolls in 2007 had a higher per-day average over a shorter duration.

Current management at Union Station is conservative in its expectations. CEO George Guastello said the station would break even at about 75,000 tickets sold but hopes to do much better. Baber said the producers of the traveling show, Premier Exhibitions, report they draw about 60 percent of their initial audience when they visit a city for a second time.

Union Station officials say people who came in 2001 should come back. The salvage company has been back to the wreckage since then, and more artifacts have been brought up.

Union Station does not yet have an inventory of all the objects that will be exhibited, but the producer is promising more than 300; the last tour touted more than 200. Among the items likely to be included are White Star dinnerware and personal items such as jewelry and eyeglasses.

Manmade objects don’t last forever 21/2miles down where the pressure is 6,000 pounds per square inch and they are eaten away by microorganisms, salt and acids. RMS Titanic Inc., a subsidiary of Premier Exhibitions, says it is aiming to preserve what it can. The company says it is the only entity to recover objects — more than 5,500 to date — from the wreckage site. In 1994, it was declared salvor-in-possession of the wreck and site by a U.S. district court. Another ruling last year affirmed the company’s rights.

There are non-traveling recreations of the Titanic experience in Branson and in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., that are not affiliated with RMS Titanic Inc. They include objects from Titanic passengers who survived or whose bodies were recovered and from the surface debris, but none from the bottom of the ocean.

To place its objects in context, the traveling Titanic exhibit includes re-creations of first-class staterooms as well as third-class bunkrooms. It may also include a replica of the grand staircase, although that is still being worked out because height is an issue.

The Titanic exhibit will be set up in Union Station’s 15,000-square-foot Bank of America Gallery on the lower level, which has much more elbow room than the 6,000-square-foot KCP&L Gallery at the end of the north waiting room where the first exhibit was housed. But the ceiling in the larger space is not very high.

The new exhibit will include elements that were hits with previous visitors, including an ice wall to touch that simulates the fateful berg. Ticket holders will be handed a boarding pass with the name of an actual Titanic passenger and at the end of the tour they can check a wall to see if their person is listed among the surviving or the dead.

The Kansas City Museum, which is operated by Union Station, also plans to complement the Titanic show with a mini-exhibit about what was going on in Kansas City at the time. For one thing, Union Station was being built.

Guastello said the Titanic exhibit will be one more area drawing card and a bonus for people coming to the Sea Life Kansas City aquarium opening in April at Crown Center.

“It will be new to a lot of people,” he said of the Titanic exhibit. “A whole new generation has grown up. It’s a meaningful, appropriate, historic exhibit for us.”

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