Why would I call a museum authentic? That might sound like a strange description but it’s actually rather perfect for the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This museum has nothing to do with the Hollywood movie with a soundtrack that never dies and everything to do with the concept, design, construction, and launch of the RMS Titanic. One day while visiting Pigeon Forge I decided to visit the museum and was swept away into another world for a tour I’ll never forget.
The first thing I learned about visiting the Titanic Museum is that I can save a few bucks by purchasing my ticket online. I sat down with a fresh fried apple pie at the Apple Barn and Cider Mill and whipped out my phone to buy the ticket. The museum is so popular they decided to merge real-life boarding practices of cruise ships with a practical way to manage foot traffic inside: you buy a ticket with an entry time.
The museum spares no expense when it comes to authenticity right from the get go. As soon as I approached the ticket line a Boarding Officer greeted me, put me in the correct line (believe me when I say buying your ticket in advance has advantages cause my line was significantly shorter), and handed me a Boarding Pass. My name was Alfred Nourney, I was twenty years old (yay!), and I was a 1st Class Passenger from Cologne, Germany. Remember all that cause it’ll be important in a few minutes.
Groups of 20-30 entered the museum every ten minutes to give people elbow room to move around and enjoy the experience. Once it was my group’s turn we were brought inside the ticket office, instructed on how to use the audio devices, and had our Boarding Pass confirmed (a.k.a. verifying we purchased a ticket online or forking over money to do so now).
The museum is laid out chronologically beginning with the earliest concept of a massive, ultra-modern cruise ship. Information panels introduced key people who were instrumental in designing, building, and manning the cruise ship. Engineering drawings, black and white photos, and conceptual drawings offered visual aids. Anywhere I saw a circle with a number in it I dialed the number into the audio device, put it to my ear like a phone, and could listen to short 30-60 second clips that gave me more information.
The tour winds through time as the Titanic was designed and built, then suddenly I was walking through the ship itself. The tour begins with cramped lower class quarters with four beds crammed into a walk-in closet. It was stark, noisy, and crowded, just as I imagine this section of the Titanic would have been during its only voyage. But eventually I was found my way to 1st Class, where I belonged (remember my Boarding Pass), after climbing the Grand Staircase.
The Grand Staircase was one of the best highlights of the tour through the museum. A finely detailed recreation from the original architectural plans the tour continues with a one-story climb up the stairs (there is an elevator, too) to a second floor balcony and the rest of the tour. I couldn’t help but a get chuckle out of my tour guide as he stood at the bottom of the staircase and explained with great enthusiasm, “The floor you are standing on now was called Millionaire’s Flooring because of the enormous cost but today is now called…linoleum.” Just to think all these years walking across the kitchen for more coffee and I was walking on Millionaire’s Flooring!
After climbing the staircase I got my first look at 1st Class accommodations. This would be the way to travel! Solid wood furniture, a fireplace, and real electric lamps. It was a cushy way to cross the Atlantic Ocean and I’m sure people like Alfred Nourney enjoyed every moment of it. Well, until the frigid end that is.
Eventually the tour passed through the bridge of the Titanic. Kids got a kick out of “steering” the ship at the helm and the glass windows were pitch black owing to the darkness outside. A blast of cold air greeted me as I walked through the hatch onto the deck outside for another tour guide speech. The air conditioning and dark lighting simulated the conditions the deck crew faced the night of the disaster as the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m.
A trough of water flows at the edge of the deck with signs daring people to stick their hands inside. The water is supposedly kept at the same temperature as the water of the North Atlantic that the survivors would have faced after the Titanic sank: 28 degrees. Taking on the dare I stuck my bare hand into the water. It was absolutely frigid and I wanted to yank it out immediately but I had silently dared myself to see just how long I could keep my hand in the water. I finally pulled out after just thirty seconds to find my skin red and my hand sorta ached the rest of the day. I’m the reason things like this get taken away.
One of the last bits of the museum to explore hit me the hardest. A life preserver recovered from the wreckage of the Titanic was on display in a glass case inside a dark room. Four glass panels etched with names hung on a wall nearby. The panels included Third Class Passengers, Second Class, First Class, and Crew. The top portion of each panel listed the people who survived while the bottom portion listed those who perished. It was shocking to see this comparison of just how few Third and Second Class Passengers and Crew survived compared to the First Class Passengers.
My tour guide asked us all to remove the Boarding Pass from our pockets, check to see who we “were” on the trip, and then find out if we survived. Visiting a museum like this is a great form of entertainment but it’s moments like these that remind me life is real and lives are lost. I quickly read through the alphabetical list and discovered that Alfred Nourney survived the disastrous voyage of the Titanic, and later I would learn he eventually returned to Germany.
On my way out I learned the museum is owned by John Joslyn who headed the 1987 expedition to the Titanic’s final resting place. Many of the artifacts in the museum were recovered from those early dives and are displayed throughout the museum. He has a fascinating story about how he went from Hollywood movie producer to Indian Jones Titanic diver.
The self-guided tour takes about two hours (I ended up taking almost three). The museum is handicap accessible and friendly for children with a separate audio tour and areas just for children. Prices vary depending on if you buy the ticket on site or in advance, and my advice is to take advantage of the combo packages for a better deal.
2134 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, TN | 800-381-7670 | www.titanicpigeonforge.com