Titanic: the Exhibition – why do stories about tragic historical events resonate with us?

While waiting in line to enter Titanic the Exhibition, a family with two young children behind us caught my eye. The youngest son was wearing a t-shirt with the Titanic on it. I overheard the parents talking to their son about how excited they were that he finally got to visit, and I decided to join in on the conversation by telling the boy how amazing his shirt was. His parents told me that he was a big fan who could tell me everything about the Titanic, including all the conspiracy theories that are out and about. It left me wondering how an historical event that killed more than 1,500 people could be this boy’s biggest passion.

Recently, I visited Titanic the Exhibition, a temporary exhibit in New York featuring 200 artifacts from the disaster of 1912. Though I initially didn’t expect to be deeply affected, my emotions overtook me a week later while creating a TikTok video (which I’ve included below), and I realized just how much the exhibit had impacted me. The experience was more powerful than I could have imagined.

@fabienvlems Sad but touching experience 💙 #titanictheexhibition #newyorkexhibition #titanic #thingstodoinnyc #nycactivities ♬ My Heart Will Go On (Titanic) – Maliheh Saeedi & Faraz Taali

What is the Titanic exhibition?

Since November, New York has been home to a temporary exhibit that takes you on a journey to the Titanic. The experience, lasting approximately an hour and a half, requires an audio tour that lets you discover the stories of the passengers aboard the Titanic. The exhibit features recreated ship rooms, photographs, and a small collection of artifacts. Given the tragic nature of the disaster, it’s unsurprising that few remnants remain. Nonetheless, the exhibit offers a moving and informative tribute to the lives affected by the tragedy.

A tourist trap?

To be honest, my expectations were not very high before entering the exhibition. I anticipated a tourist trap, and unfortunately, some of my assumptions were correct. Despite purchasing tickets online for $40 each, we arrived five minutes before our designated time slot only to be told that we had another hour of waiting in line ahead of us. A security guard, whose main concern seemed to be boosting sales, suggested that we pay an extra $10 to join the VIP line, which would only take half an hour. A classic New York City experience.

Once we passed the obligatory photo point (also clever), our journey back in time began. Equipped with headphones and a somewhat unreliable audio device, we were transported back in time as the stories behind each photograph came to life.

Emotional stories and objects

As I stared at the picture and listened to the story of the musicians who bravely continued playing music even as the ship sank, I had a hard time not getting watery eyes. However, the story that affected me the most was that of a lost ring…

Gerda, a young Swedish woman full of dreams, was set to start a new life with her boyfriend in America. During the tragic sinking of the ship, her boyfriend managed to climb into one of the lifeboats, but Gerda wasn’t able to pull herself up and eventually succumbed to the water. Her boyfriend clung onto her tightly, but tragically he too died from the cold after just half an hour.

Neither Gerda nor her boyfriend’s bodies were ever found. But months later, when the crew of another ship found the lifeboat, they noticed something sparkling at the bottom – it was Gerda’s wedding ring.

Positive effect of negative emotions

What resonated with me the most about this story, and still brings tears to my eyes as I write this, is that this young couple had dreams of starting a new life on the other side of the ocean, but tragically, were never able to make those dreams a reality. Which makes me even more grateful for the opportunity to write this blog post from the other side of the ocean in the same city they were setting sail to. A reminder of just how fortunate I am to have had the chance in this modern world to pursue this dream.

As humans, we are capable of experiencing negative emotions far more intensely than positive ones. A story like Gerda’s, that I can relate to on a personal level, has the power to transport me into the narrative, understand her struggles and enable me to empathize with her as if they were my own.

Negative emotions also often have a more profound impact on our memory, helping us to recall details more vividly and gain new insights. Additionally, negative emotions can be powerful motivators, driving us to take action and make positive changes in our lives. Thus, while negative emotions may be uncomfortable, they can also be a catalyst for personal growth and transformation.

Unfortunately, I lost sight of the family behind us in the queue, and regret not having had the opportunity to hear more about the boy’s experience. It is intriguing to observe how we, and children in particular, can develop a fascination with tragic events from history and become engrossed in learning more about them. In many ways, this is a reminder to the enduring power of these stories and the impact they continue to have on us.

Is there a tragic historical event that resonates with you on a personal level?

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