Discovering the Drama

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There is a certain level of showmanship expected from the world’s largest nonfiction media company. Begun in 1985 with 156,000 subscribers, the Discovery Channel has grown to 1.5 million subscribers under its present name, Discovery Communications. In addition, Animal Planet, Fit TV, The Learning Channel, the Military Channel, and the Science Channel are just a few of the notable names under the Discovery company umbrella.

So the bar was high when I received an invitation from Tickets for Groups to explore the newly opened Discovery Times Square Exposition Center and its inaugural exhibits, Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia and Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.

Boasting 60,000 square feet in the basement of the building that housed the New York Times’ printing presses, the sheer size of the space with its high ceilings, multiple staircases, and winding hallways is a spectacle itself (especially to native New Yorkers who have learned to treasure space as a result of its being denied).

While both exhibitions do not disappoint in showmanship, having experienced both, it is the Titanic exhibit that is the greater spectacle.

Written on the wall in front of you as you enter the exhibit and set to somber music:

The story of the Titanic has been told and retold but never more poignantly and passionately than by the artifacts presented in this exhibition.

The sinking of the Titanic has been told and retold as 20th century allegory, fable, folktale, and dramatic flight of fancy. The Canadian non-profit media literacy organization, Media Awareness Network has compiled a list of Titanic based movies in addition to James Cameron’s version. A Google search provides an extensive bibliography of books (fiction and non-fiction) about and based-on the tragedy.

As a teaching tool for New York City teachers, the Titanic exhibit fits neatly into the first Unit of the eighth grade curriculumAn Industrial Society. The exhibit texts and audio tour make several mentions of the new technologies used to build the Titanic and the new technologies impacting the lives of the generation (e.g. Kodak introduced the first portable camera).

Grade 4 and 5 teachers also have a reason to visit the exhibit. The Titanic is also a story of diversity and immigration (Grade 4, Unit 5, and Grade 5, Unit 5). Exhibit portraits and bios illustrate the diversity and social tolerances of the generation. This is emphasized by the dramatic narration and voice acting on the audio tour.

The background music, the white noises, the lighting, and the audio tour (which is provided in two options: a narration suited for kids and one suited for adults/older students) work well with the objects to tell a “poignant and passionate” story. The question is whether this story is powerful enough to hold the attention of an elementary school audience or one that is there as a condition of duty rather than desire?

The Titanic exhibit itself is titanic. There are many objects to dwell on and many “scenes” to walk through. The designers even made an effort to provide tactile experiences to visitors by including a large “ice berg” that you are invited to touch. The experience is meant to provide you with an idea of how cold it was in the water the night the ship sank. There are also functional benches that replicate the look and feel of  a bench on the deck of the Titanic.

I exited the exhibit with two questions:

  1. Why weren’t there more opportunities for visitors to interact with the exhibits by touching? There were many opportunities to think outside of the box and do something as daring as allowing visitors to walk up and down the grand staircase for example.
  2. Why were the exhibit cases placed so high? Is there a standard height for display cases? Again, an opportunity to think outside the box (no pun intended) was missed.

As I was leaving I saw they had a classroom and the packet they handed me noted add-on programs. But the packet notes that these add-ons occur after the tour. What occurs onsite to set the tone of the tour and begin the students thinking about “real objects, real stories” (the exhibit’s tagline)? The student’s travel through Times Square (a powerful visual buffet of distractions) before reaching the Expo Center.

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