John Williams is the Principal Designer forTitanic: The Artifact Exhibition. We’ve asked him a few questions about the process of designing around Titanic and Her artifacts.
What are your goals in designing an Exhibition?
JW: We recognize part of our role is to re-tell Titanic’s story and preserve Her legacy. We emphasize the Exhibition as a memorial and as an amazing platform to educate visitors on each part of Her unfortunate tragedy. Titanic’s voyage began during the Industrial Revolution, and it’s still important to recognize that our most heralded achievements may hide a dark consequence. This is especially true today.
How do you achieve this, technically?
JW: Guests enter the Exhibition with a replica of a Titanic boarding pass: Each pass has the name of a real passenger on it. As guests walk through the Exhibition, their passenger’s history begins to unfold before them. The final gallery is essentially a memorial to all passengers. Here, guests are challenged with matching the name(s) on their boarding passes with those memorialized on the wall. The personal connection becomes very real at this point: The series of cases along the perimeter of the room contain personal belongings of known passengers actually traveling aboard Titanic.
As a curator, was it difficult to marry the science of the 2010 Expedition with the emotional impact you wanted the Exhibition to have?
We tend to focus on the people— the human-interest stories within the Exhibition. Visitors are introduced to a few prolific Titanic characters and have the chance to understand how the events of Titanic’s sinking played out for them. Our curators are a key part of the process by selecting tangible artifacts, each of which is a testament to the human aspect. Titanic’s story, simply told, is a fantastic one. The Exhibition brings all the elements together.
Emotionally, what is the experience like for visitors?
The physical design and architecture of the Exhibition creates an atmosphere to match the mood in each of the galleries. For example, in the beginning, the mood is very celebratory and upbeat, just as it would have been in the beginning of the voyage. The rooms are bright and beautiful. As guests move through, the mood begins to shift to a darker, more dramatic place; a forewarning that something is awry. Just before the point of impact and sinking, the physical design of the Exhibition is incredibly chaotic. We’ve created that architecturally by using an irregular, angular design. Ambient audio and lighting are manipulated to fully engage the senses as well. By the time the visitor has reached the end of the Exhibition, they have felt a range of emotions from optimistic and jubilant, to mournful and desolate. This reinforces their connection toTitanic’s passengers.
What is your background in? How has your background influenced you creatively with regard to the Exhibition?
JW: I’m trained first as an architect, having completed my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Soon thereafter, I attended Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) for an MFA in Industrial Design. My design studies did a great job of preparing me for working on exhibitions. One thing I heard from my professors consistently was to trust my intuition. I really believe this is essential: I start with a gut feeling. I wish I could say I have a clear vision about what the design will look like, but unfortunately that’s never that easy. For me, the creative process begins by testing and exploring this instinct to see if what we’ve put together holds up and tells Titanic’s story convincingly. It’s really a process of discovery.
What’s your favorite artifact?
JW: That’s a hard question! First I have to say that I’m in an extremely privileged position to be doing this— to be one of several who are responsible for sharing these incredible objects with the world. At times during installations, working with our Collections staff, placing artifacts in their displays, I’m suddenly shocked and stop in my tracks with chills running up my spine, realizing many of these belonged to real people who sadly became victims of this ill-fated journey. That’s really powerful. Most gripping for me tend to be personal effects, such as an article of clothing or handwritten letters. Hopefully visitors to the Exhibition have similar relationships to the artifacts.
How many artifacts are in the total collection?
JW: RMS Titanic, Inc. has recovered over 5500 artifacts.
How do you decide which passengers to focus on for each Exhibition?
JW: When given the opportunity, we like to present human stories relevant to the city in which the Exhibition takes place. We often find wonderful information for First and Second Class passengers. Unfortunately, there is less about Third Class and crew, due to record keeping of the time. Regardless, each story is selected carefully to help paint a picture and supply further understanding of who made up this remarkable voyage.
What challenges did you face when designing a traveling show?
JW: I always say, “Everything about Titanic is HUGE!” It really is. There’s nothing easy about traveling and exhibiting a piece that weighs 15 tons. Believe it or not, one of our more difficult challenges is to find venues that are large enough to host this amazing experience. We have taken some painstaking measures to carefully and securely bring Exhibition elements or artifacts into a venue. In the past we have hired cranes to hoist large objects into a building. We go to great lengths engineering lifts to move things into buildings. Then it becomes a question of how much load can the building floor take. Permanent installations have their own unique challenges with regards to complying with national building codes.
If you could change or add something to the Exhibition, what would it be? What are your limitations as a curator?
JW: Titanic is a great story by itself that needs no embellishment. The real challenge is to be a good editor to tell just the right parts in the format we’re working in, because there are just so many stories. I do, at times, wish that we knew more about some artifacts. My job would be easier if we knew the entire story, but then again, is it the mystery surrounding them that makes them so compelling?
What was the most important thing you wanted visitors to understand from visiting the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition?
JW: There were so many foreshadowing events leading up to Titanic’s tragedy. I think it’s important to recognize life’s frailty and to keep our hubris in check.
For tickets and information on Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, click here.