Not The Titanic Museum Post You Thought You Were Getting.

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law called me because she and my father-in-law were trying to figure out something fun for us to do when Jim and I visited them for the weekend of July 4.

The conversation was a little bizarre to me.

She asked, “Have you seen The Titanic?”

I replied, “The movie? Yep!”

She said, “No, the museum. In Pigeon Forge.”

An aside: Pigeon Forge is a touristy town in the Great Smoky Mountains, between Sevierville and Gatlinburg. The main drag is jam-packed with all kinds of colorful, gaudy, cheesy attractions and shops. Many of the billboards advertising the businesses that are right underneath them feature lots of hillbillies, moonshine jugs, toothless guys wearing floppy hats, and poor usage of the English language.

When she said that the museum was in Pigeon Forge, I thought of all of that and heard a #SadTrombone inside my own head. I slowly answered, “Um…no…we haven’t seen it.” The idea of a Pigeon Forge-ified museum dedicated to the Titanic was too much to even imagine.

“Would you want to go?” she asked.

“Welllll…let me ask Jim,” I said, “I’m not sure if he’d be interested.”

She said, “It’s supposed to be really neat: you can feel how cold the water was!

I almost asked her “What water?” but then I realized she was talking about the water in which the Titanic sank.

I discussed it with Jim later that night and we decided that since it sounded like his parents wanted to go, we’d go. We told them to go ahead and get tickets.

On Friday when we left the house for the mountains, I was all ready to live-tweet our visit, the reason being grounded in the fact that I knew, from living in Knoxville for six years and being very well-acquainted with Pigeon Forge, there would be a huge Cheese Factor.

Unfortunately the museum did not allow cell phones to be used, and the place was crawling with staff (er, CREW), so I couldn’t even be my normal stealthy self. I’ll just have to tell you a little bit about it in more than 140 characters.

The museum is located right next to the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show (really) and the upside-down building/attraction called Wonderworks. When we got in line we were given our boarding passes (each of which had the name of a real Titanic passenger). The crew member said, “Enjoy your trip!” (Ugh.) Upon entering the building we were debriefed by another Titanic crew member, one who had a thick Tennessee accent. (OBVIOUSLY everyone who works there lives near there and most of those people have Tennessee accents, but everything else about the attraction was meant to immerse the guest in the experience, no pun intended, and the main crew members who interacted with the public should have had a British or non-distinguishable American accent in my opinion. Perhaps I’m being too critical but still UGH. It’s my blog.)

Those of us who had the audio tour modules tested them at the start of the self-guided tour, and the crew member up front made the announcement that the kids had a different audio tour, one that would make it more enjoyable for the younger crowd. And that was part of my frustration. The Titanic was a tragedy. Why are we making it a fun and enjoyable attraction? (The answer is because it’s in a tourist area where everything is made fun and enjoyable in order to attract attention and bring in crowds. The other Titanic Museum that’s owned by the same guy is in Branson, Missouri. See?)

Overall, the museum exhibit itself–as in the displays and the physical aspects of what was inside the building–was very well done, with a couple of exceptions I’ll get to in a minute. I think that anybody who is interested in the Titanic as a part of history would be very happy with the depth of information and variety of artifacts (millions of dollars worth) that were on display. For me though, it was hard to get past the “Let’s all have fun at the Titanic Museum” vibe there, even with the soundtrack of sad music that played through most of the museum and sounded like the intro to this famous Titanic-related song.

Another example: their commercials and the overly happy maid who is featured in them.

There was a large room in the museum dedicated to the movie “Titanic”, which (as a pop culture freak) I really enjoyed. I loved seeing the signed scripts, some of Kate Winslet’s dresses and hats, and other miscellaneous items. I could have done without the large display case of Oscars that the movie won, which (as a pop culture freak) I noticed were fake immediately: Oscar’s arms weren’t in the right position. I’m sure that the museum can’t use Oscars that look like actual Oscars due to copyright issues, but why bother, then? An informational poster like so many of the others that were in the room with the same picture of James Cameron holding his Oscar would have sufficed.

There were interactive parts of the exhibit, like the 28 degree water my mother-in-law told me about. Visitors can put their hands in that water to try and imagine being all the way in it, and there was a touchable “iceberg” on a huge wall too, which was exactly like when your old kitchen freezer didn’t have a frost-free feature and it used to build up a layer of ice that felt slightly fuzzy. You could try to walk on ship’s decks that were slanted at three different angles, each one steeper than the next, so you could imagine how hard it would be to walk on deck as the ship was cracking in half and sinking into the ocean.

I don’t discount the educational properties of these museum features: I know that it’s great information. Still, I had that “UGH” feeling all the way through.

Something we could have done without was the photo area. One of the crew members said, “Come on over! We’re gonna take a picture of your group in front of the grand staircase!” We stood in front of a green screen and–as most people do when a photo is being taken–smiled for the camera. Jim said, “This picture must be BEFORE we hit the iceberg.” Naturally the picture was available for purchase in the gift shop.

The last stop before the gift shop was the Memorial Room, where we got to find out if the passenger whose name was on our boarding pass survived the voyage (mine did). In all, there were more than 2200 people on board the Titanic and 1502 of them died. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history. Once we took a moment to reflect on that, it was time to make our way through the gift shop to our car.

I don’t think I have ever seen a gift shop–in my entire life–that had as big a variety of items for sale that were all directly related to the attraction. Every movie ever made about the Titanic could be found there. All of the standard souvenirs (key chains, magnets, etc.) could be found there. Anything you can imagine that is Titanic-related, including The Heart of the Ocean necklace at several levels of quality and price, could be found there.

The Heart of the Ocean: only $15.99!

About 75 minutes after we arrived, we were back in the car and on our way to lunch, reflecting on the attraction. Even though I was interested in the artifacts and what I was reading on the descriptions next to each item, the “UGH” feeling didn’t ever truly leave me. Upon discussing it with my Dad later that day, I think he hit the nail on the head. He compared the Titanic Museum to the Holocaust Museums that can be found all over the world. In the case of the Holocaust Museums (where visitors often get the name of someone whose fate they can check on at the end), the money made on ticket sales typically goes towards education and more research to further the message that we should never forget the horror or the approximately eleven million people who died. There are no happy commercials, and there’s no effort to make a Holocaust Museum visit fun and entertaining.

I feel like the Titanic Museum should have had a more serious bent to it, and it shouldn’t have been built in Branson and Pigeon Forge: it should be ONE museum in New York City, which is where the ship was headed in the first place. It is entirely possible to have a beautiful, well-curated museum that holds visitors’ interest without having to resort to making light of a tragedy: I wish the curators of this one (these two) had done it differently.

I’m probably taking this too seriously. Was this a rant? Sorry. That’s what happens when I have six days to stew about something. Anyway, there you have it!

Also, I have officially annoyed myself.

  1. I doubt the exhibit we saw in Vegas was the same. What we saw was a traveling exhibit and it wasn’t meant to be ‘fun.’ It didn’t have the same vibe as what you are describing. No photo ops in front of the grand staircase, no cold water or iceberg, etc. See this site. http://www.rmstitanic.net/

    No hokey pokey business. That is why I didn’t understand your attitude towards it.

  2. Yeah – the ad sealed what you’re saying. “Test your balance on the slanted walkways” – you know, the decks that were slanted because the ship was broken and sinking an dpeople slid down them to their icy DEATH.

    There was real opportunity here and, instead, it’s a plastic parody.

  3. The commercial is just horrible. The “zany antics” music couldn’t be much worse for a commercial about a museum dedicated to a tragedy.

    My only guess is that people find this acceptable because it’s been so long since it happened. I’m all for education, but it borders on macabre entertainment when you encourage people to imagine how it felt to die on the ship. In 100 years, I hope there won’t be a 9/11 memorial where people can walk down smokey, hot staircases to feel like they were there. 🙁

    I’ve been to the traveling Titanic museum (twice), and I don’t remember it being marketed the same way. Maybe it was because it wasn’t Pigeon Forge, so it didn’t have to compete with other attractions for entertainment dollars? It sounds like the core of this museum is also a tasteful tribute to the tragedy to help the public learn more, but the entertainment sideshow that goes with it, not so much.