Odyssey's Shipwreck! Pirates and Treasure


of an Exhibition

by Laurel Fehrenbach

Published on December 31, 2010

  • Description:

    Pirates and Shipwrecks! How could I resist such an intriguing exhibition at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore? Movies that I grew up with like Shipwrecked, Titanic and the newer Pirates of the Caribbean series, have done a lot to foster my fascination with swashbuckling and deep sea treasure hunts but this exhibition was going to show me the real thing! Odyssey Marine Exploration is a research and science team and the exhibition features their work and how they discover shipwrecks, collect and conserve treasure.
    I went to the Maryland Science Center on a Monday afternoon during most school’s winter vacations. The majority of the museum was busy with children running from kiosk to hands-on interactive and back again. The Odyssey exhibit, however, was relatively quiet since it was upstairs off the main level. I handed over my ticket and walked into the introductory area that had four display cases with examples of some of the treasure recovered from shipwrecks. This was a teaser for the booty that was ahead! I watched a six minute video from the Discovery Channel that profiled some of the men who work at Odyssey and highlighted the discovery of a canon from a 16th century English ship and footage of the object being hauled out of the ocean. The video increased my excitement to learn more, I couldn’t wait to walk around the corner to the start of the exhibition and get into the world of deep sea exploration. Only, I walked into the world of pirates.
    The first room was a timeline of famous shipwrecks and map of where they were discovered. I spent some time perusing the display but was more intrigued to walk down the adjoining hall that was constructed with concave wooden walls to look like the inside of a ship. Ropes and pulleys hung from the boards and the sounds of creaking wood and waves crashing surrounded me. I felt like I was entering a completely different environment. As I walked around the next corner I was sorely disappointed to be confronted with a room full of kitschy pirate-themed games. Some looked like arcade games that required a controller or joystick to move a ship out of the range of canon fire on a large computer screen. I could learn to tie knots, play a “secret booty” guessing game with locked treasure chests, dress a virtual pirate in a “pirate outfit” or raise and lower different versions of the “Jolly Roger” pirate flag. Wall labels told the story of real-life pirates but I found the vocabulary in the text inappropriately advanced for what I assumed would be a family-oriented exhibition. I overheard a mother reading the story of Blackbeard to her young son and she had to paraphrase most of it so that he could understand. Overall, I thought the whole pirate portion of the exhibition was very trite and stereotyped. In hindsight, it didn’t need to be a part of the exhibition at all because the pirates that were in this room had nothing to do with the shipwrecks that were highlighted in the rest of the exhibition. In fact most of the ships discovered by the Odyssey were military or commercial vessels sunk due to dangerous weather conditions. I did enjoy the design of the pirate room but it was unconnected to the rest of the show and almost felt like an afterthought as if someone on the exhibition team said “Hey, you know what shipwrecks make me think of? Pirates! And people love stuff about pirates, so we should have a section about pirates!”
    The next few rooms were the true focus of the exhibition. First, I landed in the weather room where I stood in a tube that simulated 75 mph winds, like those of a hurricane that could sink a ship! A staff member was there to explain weather patterns and how almanacs and technology could be used to predict conditions. Throughout the room you heard noises of rushing wind, cracks of thunder, rain and ringing warning bells. It was a full sensory experience and set the visitor on the journey from the wreck to the wreckage.
    Readjusting my windblown self, I then walked into the room where all of the Odyssey’s equipment was on display. I left the weather room understanding how a ship can sink and in this room I was introduced to the process of how modern technology and today’s scientists can investigate shipwrecks. Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), Towfish and Zeus, were prominent in the center of the room. These are the robots that scientists send to the bottom of the ocean to explore wreck sites and collect objects. In order to understand how they work there were several interactives that demonstrate SONAR imaging (using sound waves to locate sites underwater) and let visitors control an ROV’s mechanical arm and pick up objects from the sea floor and put them into buckets to haul them to the surface. Truth be told, it is much harder than it looks!!
    The final room displayed the treasures recovered from the deep. An overview of different methods of restoration and conservation gave me an idea of how the items are preserved without getting too complicated and technical. Each display case was divided by shipwreck site so period objects were grouped together. The most common were glass spirit and medicine bottles from the mid- to late-nineteenth century from a Civil War-era ship called the SS Republic. Other wrecks produced clay olive jars, coins and gold bars, and porcelain dishes. The labels were a fascinating history lesson that put all of the objects in context. It created the sense of a very personal history in that through the objects you learn something about the people who had them and how they were used. I especially liked that the cases were positioned low so that you could view the sea worn objects from many different angles. Videos throughout were available to watch the items being pulled out of the ocean floor or from under piles of rubble. I wanted the videos to have interviews recorded with them to hear the researchers explaining what they are doing or talking about the discoveries, but the images were still fascinating on their own.
    The Odyssey exhibition, though it started with a poorly executed pirate theme, it ended with engaging scholarship, hands-on science and treasures from shipwrecks from around the world and spanning many centuries. I learned a lot about shipwrecks and it certainly piqued my interest to think about what else could be yet undiscovered. Walking out of the exhibition, back into the bright light of the glass walled Science Center, I looked outside to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore I couldn’t help but wonder what historical treasures one could find in such a historic cove. To me, a sign of a good exhibition is one that keeps you thinking long after you’ve left.

Latest Comments (1)

pirates aside

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

this sounds like you found the rest of the exhibition interesting and satisfying. Why do exhibit designers think that they must have some tacky popular culture stuff to pull people in? Thanks for the review.

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