By Josephine Walbank
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s new exhibit called ‘Titanic stories’: Memory, Myth and Media opened on the 8th of March. Their aim is to focus on the stories surrounding the Titanic, and challenge our historical perspective of one of the 20th century’s defining historical events.
This exhibition is particularly heartfelt, placing a real focus on the individuals who survived, perished or were the descendants of those on the ship, through the telling of their personal stories. These include some of the 58 people on the Titanic who were from Cornwall, most of whom did not survive.
‘Titanic Stories’ also takes up a modern significance, by uniting these stories with those surrounding the issue of migration. It includes, alongside the Titanic stories, the current stories of immigrants who have moved to Cornwall and a commissioned series of portraits. This exhibition also contains a gallery of images and objects which are relevant to the Titanic and the stories that are part of these items. It also features a timeline and list of all of the known books, films, music scores and events which continue the story of the Titanic, and the song ‘Nearer my God to Thee’, which was the last song played by the crew as the ship sank, can be heard playing as you wander round.
The tragic sinking of the Titanic on the 14th of April in 1912, led it to be undoubtedly one of the most iconic ships in history. The boat was a phenomenal feat of engineering, however, on the fifth day of its maiden voyage, the Titanic sank after it hit an iceberg. The disaster claimed over 1500 lives, making it the greatest commercial maritime disaster ever. Over 60 years later, in 1985 the wreck of the Titanic was recovered from a depth of 12,415 feet. Since this discovery, thousands of artefacts recovered from the wreck have been put on display all over the world.
As part of the exhibition, the featured instillation called ‘Heaving Lines’ depicts an exact replica of Lifeboat 13, which was made by Falmouth boat builders, underneath a representation of the iceberg suspended from the ceiling. Boat 13 was one of the ship’s fourteen large lifeboats, which was able to fit 65 people. One of the most tragic facts about the ship’s sinking is the fact that, due to outdated maritime safety regulations, there were only enough lifeboats to accommodate roughly half of all of the people on board the ship. Not only this, but many of these lifeboats went down without being fully filled. Lifeboat 13 was lowered at 1:30 am, which was just fifty minutes before the Titanic sank, and the lifeboat was picked up at 6:30 am.
Dan Arnold, who is the artist who created the instillation, has an MA in Illustration from Falmouth University. He gained the opportunity to create the piece after responding to an open call commission from the Maritime Museum to create an instalment that responded to the Titanic theme. He chose to focus on his response to the Titanic stories through the interaction of the lifeboat on the floor and the sculpture above it which is a rendition of the iceberg. The sculpture is made of 2208 monkey knots, one to represent each of the people on board. 712 of these knots were made by the local community, and contain messages to refugees stuck at sea and the RNLI. Dan says that these knots are intended to act as a “symbol of solidarity and unity”, with a “cloud of hope” surrounding this concept through his utilization of the lighting of the exhibit with phosphorescent UV light. Furthermore, 66 of the knots are covered in glitter in order to represent the people on board Lifeboat 13, the recreation of which is perched underneath the knot sculpture.
The knots took hundreds of hours to create, and over 12,000 metres of rope were used. All of the knots were individually modelled and handmade, and each one used 4.7 metres of rope and was individually sown together with fishing line. When I spoke to Dan, he described how, although the first knot took about 45 minutes, he set up an art collective to help make the knots where they all got a lot better with practice.
Dan describes how his inspiration lay in the idea that none of the people exist, and neither does the iceberg. He wanted to bring the two elements together through their respective stories, since the stories themselves are the only things that still exist. The idea of the metaphor of Heaving Lines was taken from the fact that traditionally they have been used to pull ships together, whereas in this context, they are being used
to pull stories together. In this way, the sculpture enables us to unite the past and present with the intention of helping refugees.
I found this piece to be particularly special, since it brings a lot of little elements together, and unites lots of different people across different histories and locations, and uniting them all through the stories that they have to tell. The piece leaves one feeling that our stories are not only universal, but will last a lot longer than we expect them to.
To see more of Dan’s work, check out his website thiscountryside.co.uk, or his Instagram @thiscountryside
All photographs were taken by Kirstin Prisk courtesy of National Maritime Museum Cornwall