In the wise words of The Beautiful South: “You don’t back a horse called Striding Snail, you don’t name your boat Titanic II.”
Recently in the news it was revealed that billionaire Clive Palmer has plans to launch a “Titanic II” in 2016, which will sail the same, intended route of the fateful Titanic I. Now, if I was a billionaire, I’d probably think of some otherwise impossible things to do with my money too. But I’d take on a more “let’s try and rid the world of starvation” humanitarian approach, rather than this controversial, potential misuse of the past.
Clive Palmer: Will his dream backfire?
Now, we’ve all wept at Titanic and have all fallen for James Cameron’s tragic tale of love (or rather, DiCaprio), which is I’m afraid, not actually true. What James Cameron did and what Clive Palmer is attempting to do, is romanticise the past. They’ve taken a historical tragedy and have embellished it with spectacle, ultimately for the sake of making money. For now however, Cameron is safe from scrutiny. I’ll forgive him for his historical inaccuracies, as let’s be honest, without them we would all be without that car scene. Palmer on the other hand, his motives are indeed questionable.
James Cameron and Kate Winslet on the set of ‘Titanic’.
Firstly, it seems to me that fundamentally Palmer is just flaunting his enormous wealth. I don’t wish to embark on a Socialist rant, but is such an ostentatious display ever, let alone in this context, entirely necessary (perhaps he should read J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Calls)? Secondly, is this reconstruction really going to commemorate the dead in a respectful manner? I doubt it. People are going to spend a ridiculous amount of money to indulge in their ‘vintage’ fantasies (costume is encouraged), which is fine, but it doesn’t seem all that appropriate in this instance. Particularly with regards to experiencing life on the Third-Class deck, considering the high proportion of fatalities that occurred there in 1912.
Artist impression of the new ‘Titanic II’.
Maybe I’m being over critical. Perhaps because I’m an archaeologist, and have had the ethical debates concerning the usage of the past ingrained into me, I’m over sensitive to this story. Maybe it’s not necessarily wrong for people to be excited by this and to want to experience the grandeur and opulence of the Titanic that we so often hear about. If this is how they wish to engage with the past, then who am I judge? At least they are engaging with the past, which is what as archaeologists we actively encourage people to do. I just hope that the design involves the incorporation of a memorial, a gallery remembering the individuals who lost their lives that day, to ensure that their engagement with this particular past is not absent of the most important aspect of it: the tragic loss of life.
Nonetheless, on this occasion I do still uphold the ‘anti-reconstruction’ view. Of course I don’t apply this to absolutely everything. What harm is there in reconstructing a piece of samian ware or an iron-age roundhouse, for example? It’s when reconstructions relate to a historical event that was a painful part of the human past that I become wary. I’m not convinced it’s entirely necessary to have to see something as it once was to fully comprehend its history. Why waste time and money on a project that’s sole purpose is to recreate something that everyone can be made aware of and to understand in other ways? In 100 years, will someone have to re-build The World Trade Centre for people to understand the tragic loss of life that occurred that day? Yes, that may seem utterly abhorrent, but if you travelled back to 1912, would people not feel the same way about this particular project? Certainly, in terms of the scale and impact of both events, time bridges the gap.
Titanic Underwater: The doomed ship mapped by sonar and underwater robots.
However, I think it’s clear that Palmer is not creating this with the intention of remembrance. Indeed he has remarked: “We thought it would have a lot of appeal… certainly we’ve found it’s had enormous appeal. And financially it’s very strong as well … it’s going to be a blockbuster.” Therefore I conclude that it’s simply indulgence, and an audacious attempt at re-writing history which is undeniably insulting to the memory of the deceased. I wonder how many people will actually spare a thought for the victims buried beneath them, as they sail over the wreck of Titanic I, or if the passengers in Third Class will consider what it would have been like to have been locked away and deprived of any chance of escaping imminent death. Or whether they will be too busy praying they don’t fall victim to the same fate – which seems to be the general consensus on internet forums.