Museums

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Exhibit Titanic Survivors

Nearly 95 years after the sinking of the Titanic , the story of the ill-fated ship continues to enthrall the public like no other saga. Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition feeds that endless curiosity by bringing to the public never-before-seen items recovered from the wreck two and a half miles beneath the North Atlantic.

The interior of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps.
 
nick merrick © hedrich-blessing/courtesy of fentress bradburn architects2006_6_22
Exhibit Titanic Survivors

Nearly 95 years after the sinking of the Titanic , the story of the ill-fated ship continues to enthrall the public like no other saga. Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition feeds that endless curiosity by bringing to the public never-before-seen items recovered from the wreck two and a half miles beneath the North Atlantic. RMS Titanic , the company with diving rights to the site, sponsors the exhibit, dividing the five thousand–plus found objects among concurrent shows in cities around the world (current exhibitions are in San Francisco and Las Vegas). Ticket sales to the exhibit, which claims to be the most widely attended of its kind in history, in turn help fund the recovery missions, which are conducted by manned submersibles and remotely operated vehicles.

Handson explanations of all this nifty science are nicely woven in with displays of passengers’ personal effects (handbags, unsent postcards, and shaving brushes) and actual pieces of the ship that survived the “rusticles,” or iron-related bacteria at the bottom of the ocean. Entire public spaces are re-created in thoughtful detail around a few authentic remnants. But it is the exhibit’s interactive theme—a “you are there” approach—that lends the show its intimate feel. Profiles of passengers and crew, from first-class magnates to engine-room stokers, are highlighted throughout, and upon “embarkation,” visitors are given a reproduction of a ticket that belonged to a Titanic passenger (whose fate is disclosed at the end). It’s a humanizing detail among all that steel and ice. See www.titanic-online.com .— Amy Weaver Dorning

National Shrine Bringing George Washington Back To Life

“This has been a massive, very expensive effort because we’ve wanted to bring George Washington back to his rightful place as first in the hearts of his countrymen.” That’s how James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon , Washington’s estate on the Potomac River in Virginia, explains the building of the new visitors’ center and museum that just opened in October, after 11 years of planning and construction, $60 million of fundraising for initial costs, and another $50 million to endow future operations.

The result is stunning. Arriving at Mount Vernon, you now enter the Ford Orientation Center, which is spacious and light and airy yet remarkably unobtrusive from without. The offerings there, before you head out to Washington’s home, include a one-twelfthscale model of the house and every piece of furniture in it and a $5 million 18-minute live-action film that shows the young Washington meeting and courting his future wife, battling in the French and Indian War, preparing to cross the Delaware in 1776, and resigning his commission in 1783—all as a way of quickly acquainting you with his life and accomplishments in the years before what Rees calls Mount Vernon’s golden age, the happy time between the end of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention and Presidency.

But the best new addition is the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which you’re expected to visit after taking the tour of Washington’s house and enjoying the grounds. Part of the museum is a traditional exhibit space that will display 800 artifacts, foremost among them the great 1785 bust of Washington by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. But there’s also a string of galleries that give you a multimedia trip through Washington’s whole life. It includes among many other things TV monitors showing short films produced by the History Channel, a reproduction of a cabin at Valley Forge, a theater with a big-screen movie about the Revolution, and a room devoted entirely to Washington’s dentures (a painfully fascinating subject). But best of all are the three dioramas containing ultrarealistic life-size figures of Washington, at ages 19, 45, and 57, based on painstaking scientific research.

First you see Washington the surveyor, young, athletic, and confident, in a clearing in the Shenandoah Valley. Next he’s on horseback, surrounded by his troops and falling snow at Valley Forge, in a blue dress coat with gold epaulets and white leather breeches, looking every inch the commander. Finally he’s at Federal Hall in New York, taking the oath of office as President, looking older, more like the George Washington of Gilbert Stuart and the dollar bill, but amazingly alive and real and consistent with his younger versions. You’ll come away from seeing these three Washingtons thinking you’ve gotten to know the man in a way you never before could have. Visiting Mount Vernon has always been an inspiring experience. It has gotten even more so. Frederick E. Allen

New Museum One service’s bid to “live forever”

No branch of our armed services has a more vigorous sense of its past than the Marines, and now they have a particularly effective way to help keep that past vivid. Appropriately situated in Quantico, Virginia, the brand-new (it opened to the public this November 13) National Museum of the Marine Corps houses some 60,000 artifacts, from small arms to very large ones (a Harrier jump jet hangs in the main gallery). Along with the traditional displays are some strenuously modern ones. The visitor can get hectored through boot camp, take a tour of the lines in North Korea, and, in Vietnam, debark from a helicopter onto a contested landing zone complete with heavy humidity.

The museum is the anchor of the still-building Marine Corps Heritage Center, which in time will include a “display armory,” a memorial park, parade grounds, hiking trails, and the inevitable IMAX theater. But there’s plenty here already, including a flag that flew on Mount Suri-bachi, and not the least stirring sight is the quote barked out by Sgt. Daniel Daly, urging his battered outfit forward through Belleau Wood in 1918. Although carved in marmoreal stone, it vibrates with the pugnacious gallantry of the Corps and encapsulates what that gallantry costs: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”— Richard F. Snow

Museum Renovation A Great Institution Gets Greater

Like several other San Francisco icons, the original M. H. de Young Memorial Museum began life as a pavilion in the 1894 California Midwinter International Exhibition, housed in the city’s still-new Golden Gate Park. Michael de Young, then editor of the San Francisco Chronicle , had been a major force behind the exposition, hoping the proceeds would stimulate the city’s depressed economy. He had the right idea: More than 1.3 million visitors attended, generating enough profit to turn the pavilion into a permanent art museum, the city’s first. Over the ensuing decades the de Young evolved from an eclectic assortment of exotic odds and ends into a major storehouse of American, African, and Oceanic art, and as the collection began to outgrow the available space, buildings were torn down and rebuilt, creating an architecturally dysfunctional whole. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused heavy damage to the museum, the time had come to start from scratch. It closed its doors on December 31, 2000; thousands of San Franciscans came to pay tribute.

The decisions to leave the new museum in the park instead of relocating it to a more convenient downtown site and to let the natural surroundings influence its architecture turned out to be both crucial and happy ones. Though many locals weren’t sure they were going to like the new 140-foot coppery tower rising over their beloved park, the results have been a smash success, with both architecture critics and the public. Since its October 2005 opening, more than 1.6 million visitors have walked the slate floors of the new de Young, and there are no signs of the crowds thinning. And this time around the de Young promises to age gracefully. As the copper exterior oxidizes, it will take on the hues of the surrounding park. Those looking for vestiges of the museum’s beginnings will find them in the sphinx statues guarding the front entrance, the “Pool of Enchantment,” and the palm trees that were planted for the original exhibition. Amy Weaver Dorning