Bringing Out the Dead

When "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit" docks at the Houston Museum of Natural Science this weekend, you'll find that the term "exhibit" is a little misleading. With an accompanying IMAX film and a planetarium show of the night sky on April 14, 1912, this memorial to the disaster could become a full-day excursion.

The exhibition leads visitors chronologically from the creation of the elegant cruise liner to the boarding of its excited passengers. A simulated iceberg gives an idea of the temperatures involved, and a life-size re-creation of the below-deck areas and first- and third-class living quarters provides a taste of life on board. The artifacts here aren't just 90-year-old pieces of barnacled wood; the collection features eyeglasses, dishware, binoculars and musical instruments carefully recovered from 2.5 miles beneath the ocean's surface. There are even letters, meant to give viewers an individual connection to the 2,228 passengers and crew.

One is never sure whether to be intrigued or offended by such a morbid display of personal effects. The correspondence is addressed to friends, mothers and lovers, and no doubt much of the subject matter is long-awaited reunions. To further bring home the human cost of the disaster, boarding passes are handed out with the names of actual passengers. At the end of the exhibit, you get to find out whether the person on your pass lived or, more likely, died.

Whatever our fascination with the 46,000-ton boat that sank in isolated Arctic waters nearly a century ago, the appeal appears to be universal. "In every city, we have experienced sellout crowds," says Tom Zaller, vice president of production of Clear Channel Entertainment, which sponsors the show. "We know Houston will be the same."

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Claire Theriot Mestepey