On the evening of 14 April 1912, two lookouts on the luxury White Star liner, Titanic, reported what seemed to be mist on the horizon. Disastrously, the iceberg they were looking at had flipped over in the Atlantic. Its water-filled tip was almost invisible against the night sky. The largest man-made object to be moved on earth went down, with the loss of 1,523 lives. The Titanic passed into legend. The tragedy challenged man's belief in his technological superiority over nature and, with hindsight, became a fateful premonition of the First World War.
It is hardly surprising, then, that this exhibition seems small and oddly soulless set against the myths encrusting the ship. With the story of its voyage and discovery in 1985, here are 150 artefacts from over 3,600 already recovered from the seabed: champagne bottles, a steward's jacket, a letter from an ostrich-feather salesman complaining that feather boas were going out of fashion. Nothing has been raised from the hull itself.
What the exhibition is timely in doing is underlining the Titanic's importance to improved maritime safety. The disaster led to the introduction of regular ice patrols. But unlike the speed with which the Estonia or the Herald of Free Enterprise went down, the Titanic took two-and-a-half hours to sink. The greatest regulatory failing was too few lifeboats. That was quickly rectified on her sister ship - the Olympic.
Together with the American salvage company, RMS Titanic Inc, the Maritime Museum is setting up an Advisory Committee on future exploration and conservation, while preparing the ground for a floating display and a permanent exhibition. They could have been bolder in unfolding the human drama of the Titanic and the impressive achievement of exploration at a depth of two-and-a-half miles. But there is still controversy surrounding the ship, and potential accusations of grave-robbing if RMS explores the hull. Salvage is also extremely expensive. This exhibition is very much testing the waters.
'Wreck of the Titanic', National Maritime Museum, 10am-5pm Mon-Sat, 12noon-5pm Sun, pounds 4.95/pounds 3.95, 4 Oct-2 Apr 1995