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Titanic Exhibit at Reagan Library has Santa Monica Ties


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By Zina Markevicius
Special to the Lookout

June 8, 2017 -- In her nightgown, the frail grandmother leaned far over the ship’s railing and dropped the necklace into the dark water. But the iconic “Heart of the Ocean” is not lost to the depths of the sea.

This “Titanic” movie prop, used by actress and Santa Monica native Gloria Stuart, is on view in a new exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, along with other artifacts related to the doomed ocean liner.

Passenger relics, movie set pieces, and equipment from the mission to locate the ship’s wreckage create a unique package. They span the history of the public’s interest in the great ship, from its tragic sinking in 1912, to Robert Ballard’s discovery in 1985 and James Cameron’s epic film in 1997.

Titanic chair
Original deck chair from the Titanic (Courtesy of Reagan Library)

Most compelling are the personal belongings of the ship’s passengers, both victims and survivors. Eerily bright and shiny gold, the pocket watch of American businessman John Jacob Astor IV was recovered from his body.

It is displayed next to the ruddy brown life vest worn by his pregnant teen bride who escaped disaster in a lifeboat. Bandleader Wallace Hartley’s sheet music seems untouched by the cold Atlantic water, where it was also recovered on his body.

The number of these personal items on display is limited, and the exhibit notes that it does not include items salvaged from the underwater wreck site, calling it “a sacred, final resting place.”

Visitors may be torn between wanting more and respecting the dead, a similar quandary evoked by Pompeii exhibitions. Unlike other Titanic shows, the Reagan exhibit does not cross that ethical line but slightly disappoints in volume.

A sizable number of artifacts come from the aftermath of the sinking. The role of the rescue ship Carpathia is detailed, including the heroic efforts of the wireless operator who tirelessly transmitted names of survivors.

A deck chair from Carpathia looks similar to one recovered from Titanic, but the Carpathia’s chair is nicknamed a “widow’s chair” for the women whose husbands had drowned hours earlier.

Smaller relics are interesting but reveal flaws in the exhibit’s design. For example, in gratitude, the Survivor’s Committee issued coins to the crew of Carpathia depicting the rescue.

The faces of the displayed coins can barely be viewed from any angle because of bright lighting, glare on display cases and dark shadows cast by the viewer.

Moreover, much of the exhibit notes are printed in small font that is difficult to read, and some typing and grammatical errors are found.

Insurance claims following the sinking provide a surprising new look at the issues of class. While the claim from one first class survivor lists pages of expensive clothes and jewelry as lost in the Atlantic, a third class passenger is reimbursed for her lost possessions a total of 130 pounds Sterling, less than the cost of one first class dress.

Santa Monica is the final resting place for one first class passenger, Marion Estelle Kenyon. Kenyon was born in Iowa in 1871 and married her third husband, steel magnate Frederick Roland Kenyon, in 1904, according to Encyclopedia Titanica.

The vacationing couple were returning to the U.S. on Titanic’s maiden voyage, when Frederick refused to board Titanic’s lifeboats before women and children. Pregnant and newly widowed, Marion delivered a stillborn child shortly thereafter.

Marion joined her sisters in California and married Frederick’s friend Owen Albert Williams in Santa Monica on Christmas Eve 1916, though they later divorced. She died in 1958 and is reportedly interred at the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

The real-life Titanic survivor may have crossed paths with another Santa Monican, Gloria Stuart, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as on-screen survivor, “Old Rose.”

Gloria was born on the Fourth of July 1910 on her parents’ dining room table on Fourth Street in Santa Monica, according to IMdB. She graduated from Santa Monica High School, where she starred in the senior class play in 1927, and her acting career blossomed in the 1930s, when she played leading roles in films including “The Invisible Man” (1933). Gloria also helped found the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

She left Hollywood for decades, raising a family and pursuing a variety of artistic endeavors, including painting, growing bonsai tree, and printing fine artists’ books. She was rediscovered by film audiences in her 1997 Titanic role as a sweet romantic grandmother and won a SAG award for her performance.

In addition to the necklace prop on display at the Reagan Library, there are costumes, set pieces, and miniatures used in filming. The beaded dresses worn by first class passengers are beautifully crafted, and the ankle-length pink dress worn by leading actress Kate Winslet is also displayed.

Again here, visitors are left wanting more. The movie pieces are interesting but insufficient to provide the full story of the making of the movie.

Most disappointing is the presentation of the discovery of the Titanic wreck site by Dr. Robert Ballard and his team in 1985. It was only revealed years later that Ballard’s mission was part of the U.S. Navy’s search for two missing sunken submarines as part of the Cold War.

The Reagan Library exhibit begins with a touching display about the lost servicemen and their families, a confusing entry point for visitors expecting Titanic relics. The next section features the manned submersible used by Ballard among other equipment, plus a running interview with the retired Navy officer.

The whole exhibit would be more effective if reversed, starting with the Titanic passengers' belongings that carry the most emotion. Those isolated pieces would be further illuminated by the movie props, and then at the end, visitors would be ready for the answer to how the wreck was found to recapture the public’s imagination. The drowned submarine crews would elicit more attention as a final and more proximate ending to the story.

Much less substantial than the library’s Vatican exhibit from last summer, Titanic at the Reagan Library is still an interesting compilation of the epic story, from maiden voyage, sinking, and rescue, to the aftermath, rediscovery, and Hollywood recreation.

This year, the Reagan Library & Museum is celebrating its 25th year. Also on display through June 25 is the special exhibit, “Read My Pins: The Madeline Albright Collection,” of pins and brooches worn by the former UN ambassador and Secretary of State.

Titanic at the Reagan Library continues through January 7, 2018. General admission of $29 includes entrance to the museum and special exhibits. For more information, click here.


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