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A Pair of Sea Shells

Queen Mary, a retiree, plays hostess to treasures from its fallen sister, the Titanic.

June 12, 1997|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two grande dames of the sea are receiving callers this summer in Long Beach. Together, they have a wondrous tale to tell.

The first: the Titanic, the opulent, presumably unsinkable British steamer that struck an iceberg on an ink-black night during its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank, causing the death of more than 1,500 passengers and crew members.

Artifacts from the ship, whose wreckage was discovered in 1985 lying 2 1/2 miles beneath the sea off the Newfoundland coast, were brought to Long Beach in May in "Titanic: The Expedition." It is the first West Coast showing of items recovered from the ship.

The second: the venerable Queen Mary, the British ocean liner turned Long Beach tourist attraction, whose spacious main gallery houses the Titanic exhibit through Jan. 4.

The show focuses on a 1996 expedition that recovered new artifacts from the hulking, algae-covered shell of what was, briefly, the crown jewel of the seas. Visitors view a 13-minute film that includes an overview of the work of the French Institute of Research and Study of the Sea.

After decades of fruitless searches by researchers and treasure seekers, the Titanic's wreckage was located by a U.S.-French team. In 1994, a federal court awarded salvage rights to New York-based RMS Titanic Inc., which gave the group sole responsibility for its conservation.

Pieces on display range from a restored pair of brass binoculars to a battered but still dignified silver soup tureen, a so-called "wet" item because it is undergoing the painstaking conservation process and is displayed in a water-filled case to prevent further erosion.

China from the grand dining salons and humbler dishware used by third-class passengers are also on view, along with a handful of personal items including a man's clothing brush that survived remarkably intact.

Enlargements of vintage photographs, including shots of survivors huddled in lifeboats in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, are side by side with photos of the research process and replicas of the state-of-the-art tools being used to uncover the Titanic's long-hidden treasures.

The Queen Mary's public relations manager, Elizabeth Borsting, says response has been "phenomenal" and that about 4,000 people crowded into the exhibit on opening weekend recently.

Borsting says she expects that interest will remain strong, bolstered by the popularity of the current Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, "Titanic," and the eventual release of James Cameron's $200 million-plus film, "Titanic."

"The subject is incredible. . . . There are so many wonderful stories," she said.

Given the subject, the tone of this exhibit is surprisingly positive. Still, don't be surprised if you get a catch in your throat as you stand alongside the Queen Mary and consider those other wonderful, as well as the tragic, Titanic stories.

BE THERE

"Titanic: The Expedition" aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. Through Jan. 4. Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; until 9 p.m. on Saturdays after June 28. Admission packages range from $6 for exhibit only (children under 4 are free) to $14-$20 including Queen Mary admission, self-guided and guided tours and exhibit admission. Additional fee for parking. (562) 435-3511.

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