In 1912, the RMS Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank into the frigid North Atlantic, killing more than 1,500 people. Soon after the wreckage’s 1985 discovery, the private company RMS Titanic Inc. gained exclusive rights to salvage the wreck, eventually recovering some 5,500 artifacts. Many of these objects—from statuettes to the shoes of the victims—have since traveled the world as centerpieces of museum shows and privately run exhibits.
In 2016, RMS Titanic Inc. and its owner Premier Exhibitions filed for bankruptcy, leaving their Titanic collection's fate uncertain. Now, on the eve of a major bankruptcy court hearing, a coalition of British and Irish institutions has kicked off a fundraising campaign to bring the entire collection home—back to the islands that built and managed the ill-fated liner.
“These artifacts, which are of great historical significance, are at risk of being spilt up, sold to private collectors and lost as an identifiable collection,” Conal Harvey, vice chairman of Titanic Belfast, the museum next to the shipyards that birthed Titanic, said in a statement. “Therefore, we are campaigning to bring these artifacts home, where they will be protected and preserved, through public ownership and on display for the world to enjoy.”
The campaign aims to raise $19.2 million in support of a bid to acquire the artifacts that the U.K.’s National Maritime Museum and National Museums Northern Ireland recently filed in U.S. bankruptcy court. If their bid is successful, the museums say that they would absorb the artifacts into their permanent collections. Titanic Belfast would display the majority of the artifacts, and the National Maritime Museum will take the lead on conserving them.
At the press conference, the National Geographic Society also made a $500,000 pledge toward the campaign. The announcement comes a year after the Society quietly convened a meeting attended by the bidding institutions, the Titanic wreck site's discoverer Robert Ballard, and Titanic film director James Cameron that focused on how to keep the salvaged artifacts in the public trust. (National Geographic Partners, the media company that produced this article, is partially owned by the National Geographic Society.)
“The repatriation of the shipwreck's artifacts presents an historic opportunity to honor the Titanic's lasting legacy and the memories of all who perished," says Michael L. Ulica, the National Geographic Society's interim president and CEO, in a statement. “As the first private donor to contribute to this effort, National Geographic is excited to be part of this latest chapter of the Titanic’s history and to support the initiative to bring these artifacts home.”
“From the moment when we first raised this idea [at the 2017 meeting], it was a dream. But with the bid going in, and actual funds on the table...I wouldn't give it odds, but I think they're very good,” says Cameron, a National Geographic explorer-at-large who has dived the Titanic wreck site 33 times. “I can't imagine the court not looking on it favorably—there's just too much right about it.”
In addition to securing the artifacts, the museums would obtain RMS Titanic, Inc.’s status of “salvor-in-possession,” meaning that the museums would have the exclusive rights to salvage the wreck.
The institutions have no plans to further salvage the wreck, however, and say they would maintain the salvage rights only to prevent others from doing so.
As National Geographic has previously reported, two groups of Premier’s equity holders have filed competing bids in bankruptcy court for RMS Titanic, Inc. and its artifacts. However, the world’s most prominent Titanic experts have lined up behind the museums.
“The Titanic was always meant to turn around and come back home but never did,” said Ballard, a National Geographic explorer-at-large, in a previous interview. “This helps gives closure.”
The fundraising campaign begins the day before the museums consortium and the other bidders for RMS Titanic, Inc. have a hearing in U.S. bankruptcy court. The hearing won’t provide a final say on the future owners of Titanic's treasures; rather, it will focus on how the three competing plans will be weighed against each other. The museums’ lawyers expect that proceedings will continue for several more months.
A message from the National Geographic Society: National Geographic is committed to honoring the lives lost on the Titanic. The National Geographic Museum's latest exhibition, Titanic: The Untold Story, contains rare artifacts on generous loan from families of the survivors. None were salvaged from Titanic's final resting site.