Should the Titanic‘s Artifacts Stay Underwater?

As the 100th anniversary of the ship's demise approaches, an auction and a museum exhibit take two distinct approaches to commemorating the disaster. Are the remains meant for public education or private mourning?

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Tim Delaney

An artist's rendering of the Titanic exhibit, set to open at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut on April 12, 2012

From the educational to the experiential to the downright bizarre, ways to commemorate the April centennial of the Titanic disaster won’t be in short supply. Whether through eerily specific replica cruises or the more foreseeable 3-D release of James Cameron’s 1997 film, history buffs and Leonardo DiCaprio fans alike can pay homage to one of the world’s deadliest peacetime sea tragedies 100 years after it happened.

While cruising the Atlantic or immersing oneself in the world of Jack and Rose might re-create the experience of being on the ill-fated ship, a new exhibit at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium aims to re-create the adventure of discovering its resting place. The team behind the exhibit, called “Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below,” includes Robert Ballard, a former U.S. Navy officer who discovered the Titanic in a 1985 expedition with French oceanographer Jean-Louis Michel. Ballard is the founder and president of the Institute for Exploration, a division of the Sea Research Foundation, which is the nonprofit that operates Mystic Aquarium.

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Set to launch April 12, the exhibit aims to tell a unique but comprehensive story. The lead creator, Tim Delaney, says that means establishing an emotional connection with the events leading up to the disaster and the eventual discovery of its remains. What it does not entail — and what Ballard expressly opposes — is displaying any artifacts extracted from the wreckage. Ballard compares the experience of discovering Titanic to visiting a historic battlefield — a final resting place, a gravesite.

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“You don’t go to Gettysburg with a shovel,” he says. “If we cannot protect the Titanic, what can we protect?”

So instead of focusing on the aftermath of the discovery, the exhibit celebrates “the art of the hunt,” Ballard says. After experiencing a digital re-creation of the ship’s collision with an iceberg and its subsequent capsizing, visitors enter a simulated undersea world, meant to re-create Ballard’s journey, which he says was at times taxing and tedious but ultimately rewarding.

With 52 years of experience in undersea exploration, Ballard harbors reverence toward all shipwrecks, particularly those whose death tolls crept as high as the Titanic’s. That’s why he questions the ethics of extracting and displaying Titanic artifacts — because they’re personal effects of the deceased, meant to be preserved and respected.

Institute for Exploration & Institute for Archaeological Oceanography

“The deep sea is the largest museum on our planet, but there’s no lock on its door,” Ballard says. And indeed, since Ballard and Michel discovered the Titanic some 27 years ago, whether or not the sea should be “locked up” has been a divisive issue. Just six weeks prior to the discovery, another noted ocean explorer, Mel Fisher, discovered the wreck site of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a ship en route to Spain that sank in 1622 off the coast of Florida. Fisher called for the recovery of the site’s gold, silver, jewels and artifacts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. After legal battles with Congress, Fisher managed to victoriously maintain the phrase finders keepers.

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Seeking to protect Titanic artifacts from a similar fate, Ballard appeared before Congress in 1985, shortly after the discovery. The following year, President Reagan signed into law the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act to establish guidelines for exploration and recovery. The bill prohibits any individual or vessel under U.S. jurisdiction, or without a registered nationality, from removing, injuring or selling Titanic property without a permit issued by the Secretary of Commerce. It mandates that permits can be granted only if the activity in question furthers educational, scientific or cultural purposes in the public interest.

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But neither legislation nor Ballard’s stance on artifact recovery have kept Titanic heirlooms on the ocean floor. In fact, another event marking the tragedy’s centennial is an auction of more than 5,000 artifacts, ranging from pocket-size personal effects to a 17-ton slab of the ship’s hull. The auction, coordinated by Guernsey’s Auction House in New York, won’t sell the items individually, but rather as one collection. Currently owned by R.M.S. Titanic Inc., a division of Premier Exhibitions Inc., the artifacts are displayed at five locations around the world, and will be consolidated as a single set for the first time.

The heirlooms’ new owner could be an individual, a corporation or even a city, but the party must agree to keep the collection together as one unit, says Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s. The owner must also agree to display a considerable portion for public access, corresponding to the clause in the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act that requires salvaged artifacts to further “cultural purposes.” Serious bidders must communicate with the auction house in advance to determine if their intentions adhere to all guidelines. Some artifacts will be on display at the April 11 reception, but it won’t be a traditional auction as much as a public announcement of the winning bidder.

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Though Ettinger says he’s aware of the conflicting beliefs regarding the extraction of artifacts, he says items recovered from the scenes of a tragedy can help improve knowledge of the events. For example, the slab of Titanic’s hull, simply dubbed “the big piece,” has given scientists the opportunity to study the ship’s metallurgy and construction.

Courtesy of RMS Titanic, Inc., a subsidiary of Premier Exhibitions, Inc.

Understanding any structural shortcomings or defects that affected the Titanic disaster could help prevent future catastrophes, Ettinger argues. “If we can learn from the past, this is the way to do it,” he says.

All of the 5,500 items heading to the auction block have been recovered from the debris field surrounding the disintegrating ship — as far as 13 miles away, Ettinger notes. Along with the 17-ton bulk of the hull, the collection includes a trove of personal belongings plucked from the icy depths, from a pair of binoculars to a bracelet with the name “Amy” engraved in diamonds.

According to Ettinger, about six parties have come forward with a serious interest in acquiring the collection. Though it’s difficult to predict where the artifacts will end up, it’s safe to say there’s at least one noted explorer who will not be bidding.

For more about the Titanic and other famous disasters, see these new books: Disasters That Shook the World from TIME and Titanic: The Tragedy That Shook the World, One Century Later from LIFE.

SPECIAL: TIME Commemorative Reissue “A Titanic Discovery”