Indian Orchard, Massachusetts
A number of Titanic museums have sailed (and sunk) over the years, some of them spectacular. But the very first US Titanic museum -- and the official museum of the Titanic Historical Society -- is packed into a couple of rooms in the back of Henry's Jewelry Store in the small town of Indian Orchard, Massachusetts. It's there because Ed Kamuda runs the store, and because Ed is the president of the Society.
Ed is not a sailor or a professional historian. He just found himself intrigued by the Titanic's story, and began collecting Titanic memorabilia in 1963 when not many other people cared. "One of the survivors died," Ed told us, "and his stuff was thrown in the city dump by his landlady who wanted to rent his apartment. I said, 'Somebody's gotta do something to preserve this stuff.'"
The Titanic Museum is packed with Ed's acquisitions, as well as models, books, and display cases. Its walls are covered with paintings and posters of the doomed ship. One room contains Titanic artifacts, many of them donated by survivors. A deck chair. A life preserver. A square of carpet from a first class stateroom. Ed shows us the wireless message sent to the Titanic that warned of the iceberg that would eventually sink it. He got it from an East German sailor in exchange for two cans of Prince Albert tobacco.
The museum even has a display of fake artifacts, which in the outside world (but not in here) vastly outnumber the real ones.
Ed makes it clear that nothing in the museum was brought up from the sunken hulk of the Titanic, which was discovered in 1985. "Other museums cater to the grave robbers," he says. "We don't have anything to do with that. If they'd just leave the Titanic alone, it'd last for a thousand years. But they keep going down there, picking stuff up. What for?"
Well, money. Ed admits that the price of Titanic relics has skyrocketed over the past decade, along with interest in the disaster. The second room in the Titanic Museum is proof of its allure, as it's crammed with pop culture artifacts and elaborate tributes crafted by members of the Titanic Historical Society. One example, a fuzzy wall decoration of a sinking Titanic, was made by a carpet salesman -- good enough on its own, but then Ed flicks a switch and LEDs embedded in the fabric wink on, some simulating a rocket burst, others the lights of the sinking ship as they gradually dim and blink out. "The guy just drove up one day," Ed recalled, "and said, 'I'm donating this to the Society.'"
Ed talks about The Rivet Counters, a sub-group of fans devoted to nothing but building meticulously precise scale models of the Titanic. Several impressive examples of their work are on display, including one 27-foot-long behemoth that's exhibited above the greeting card aisle in the jewelry store because it's too big for the museum. "It's radio-controlled; it can sail on its own," Ed says. "It had Jack and Rose [the stars of the 1997 movie] hanging off of the stern, but I took them off. I don't want them on there."
This act of exclusion hints at the treacherous waters that Ed must navigate with the Titanic Museum. In the wake of the blockbuster movie, the Society journal filled whole issues with film director James Cameron interviews and behind-the-scenes photos. But as the hubbub died down, perhaps the Society felt they'd gone a bit too far -- like that guy in one Titanic movie disguising himself as a woman to get on the last lifeboat. The ship is gone, the waves have subsided -- and now it's time to get rid of the scarf and purse....
Ed would prefer to weed out the "teeny-boppers" whose principal fascination is with the love story of Jack and Rose, two passengers who never existed. "There's a tombstone up in Halifax with the name 'J. Dawson' on it," Ed tells us. "Teenagers were going up there with flowers, thinking it was Jack's grave. But Dawson was a crew member. Jack was fictional."
Ed shows us a large board hanging on a wall that lists everyone who was on the Titanic when it sank. Sure enough, there's Joseph Dawson, a coal trimmer. The names on the board are written in two different styles to distinguish those who lived from those who died, and there are many more casualties than survivors. We can tell right away that J. Dawson didn't make it, along with about 80 percent of the crew, according to Ed.
Still, the museum is full of Cameron's Titanic posters and memorabilia. There's even a rare commemorative sculpture of Rose's naked sketch scene, with her gaudy blue jewel sparkling.
Ding-dong! The electronic doorbell at the front door of the jewelry shop keeps chiming, and Ed is repeatedly pulled away from our tour to steer his economic ship. He's a soft-spoken man, and he probably gets tired of repeating stories that he's told a hundred times before. But he is now the authority on the Titanic. All of the survivors are dead.
We decide to ask Ed a question that maybe no one else has: What's the worst Titanic film ever made? Several come to mind (Terror On The Titanic, S.O.S. Titanic) but Ed decides that it's Raise The Titanic. And then he adds that he feels bad about it, since it was at that movie's premiere that the museum was given its deck chair.