The world's most famous shipwreck may soon have a new (and long overdue) team of impassioned stewards.
U.S.-based Premier Exhibitions, which owns the exclusive salvage rights to the RMS Titanic, filed for bankruptcy last year and is seeking a single buyer for the more than 5,500 artifacts it has recovered from the wreck of the legendary ocean liner. It's estimated that only 1,500 of the historical items have been seen in public exhibitions, with a majority kept in undisclosed warehouses throughout the United States.
For Dr. Robert Ballard, the famed oceanographer who discovered the wreck site in 1985, it's an opportunity to fix what he has perceived as a great injustice to the memory of the famed vessel.
"They're not going down there and saying, oh my gosh we've got to save the ship," he said of the salvage operations in a 1997 interview with PBS. "They're not caring about the ship. They're bringing up artifacts for commercial gain. These people are not historians, they're not archaeologists."
A pocket watch retrieved from the wreck site showing 2:28 a.m., only minutes after the Titanic sank on the morning of April 15. (Photo: Digiblue)
Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron, who directed the 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" and has made a record 33 dives to the wreck site, agrees with Ballard. In an effort to wrest back control of the wreck and the recovered artifacts, the pair are backing up a bid by a group of British museums for Premier Exhibition's assets. The Royal Museums Greenwich, National Museums Northern Ireland, Titanic Belfast and Titanic Foundation Limited collectively made a bid for $20 million. Ballard told The Hollywood Reporter the bid is the "only viable option to retain the integrity" of the artifacts and the collection "deserved to be returned home to where its journey began."
The lot, which includes future salvage rights, as well as everything from the ship's bell to the well-preserved clothing of passengers, is expected to change hands for more than $200 million. As part of a lengthy set of rules and conditions, no single item can be sold and the entire collection must remain under one owner.
You can see some of the thousands of artifacts kept in a climate-controlled vault in the NBC Nightly News video from July 2017 below.
Preserving all aspects of history
David Gallo, a NOAA oceanographer who helped lead a 2010 expedition to the Titanic, told the L.A. Times in July 2017 that Cameron and Ballard would like to see the artifacts preserved and displayed at the Titanic Belfast museum and monument in Northern Ireland.
“Jim is dedicated and has a certain passion for the site,” Gallo said. “He would really like to see the collection stay together.”
As for Ballard, he would like to see more done to protect and conserve the wreck site located more than 12,000 feet down in the North Atlantic. In addition to damage done by salvage and tourism submersibles over the decades, the remains of the Titanic are also slowly being consumed by a unique species of steel-eating bacteria. Some researchers predict the site will be little more than a rust stain by 2030.
Ballard's idea for preserving the site as an underwater museum for future generations may sound as ridiculous as the initial efforts to raise the vessel once did. In an interview with National Geographic during the centennial of the Titanic's sinking, he proposed giving the wreck an underwater paint job.
"When I first saw it, I first saw [the anti-fouling] pink paint and I didn't see anything growing on it," Ballard said, referring to the reddish paint covering the bottom portion of the hull. "The paint's still working after a hundred years. So why not paint everything above it like the hull? If you keep the hull together, it won't splay open."
The red anti-fouling paint applied to Titanic's hull below the waterline, shown here in a colorized photo of the ship's construction in Belfast, has managed to preserve the steel from corrosion for a century. (Photo: 3DHistory.de)
The special underwater-adhering paint, which would match the current palette of browns, reds, and oranges gracing the outer hull, would be applied using techniques already available in the commercial maritime industry.
"Supertankers use robots that clean their hulls and paint them underwater," he added. "So it could be a piece of cake."
As for cost, Ballard estimates that it would be on par with expenditures made to conserve and protect historical buildings.
"[We] have the technology to preserve the ship," he said. "Conservation and preservation in situ is possible, but who would do that?"
The group of museums may just be the answer.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2017.