That sinking feeling

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"Titanic: The Exhibition," is on display at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg through May 15, 1998. For information andreservations call 1-800-777-9882

Here's how stupid I am. Because it involves drowning, which I consider a particularly horrible way to die, I didn't want to see "Titanic." Spending $7 to watch the helpless, hopeless final moments -- in Oscar-quality realism-- seemed aggressively masochistic. Leonardo or no Leonardo.

"You don't actually see anyone drown in the movie," my friend says. We are planning to visit the world's largest display of Titanic artifacts, now at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg. Seeing the movie and then the genuine articles would be an experiential double whammy. So I say OK and go see the movie. That is how stupid I am; I actually expected that no one would die.

And it's not like you can walk away and say, "Oh well, it was only a movie." The actual exhibit opens with a replica of the Nautile, the one-man craft with robot arms strong enough to retrieve pieces of the ship's machinery but delicate enough to secure a paper dinner check found among the ruins. A slide show tells stories of some of the 700-plus survivors and the tragic heroism of some of the 1,500 doomed. (If you don't get choked up at least once, you are a mutant.) Following this, the museum provides a self-guided tour via Walkman. You can take your time and replay anything you didn't hear.

Scale models of the ship post- and pre-iceberg precede portraits of some of the key players in the Titanic's history. One of these was Bruce Ismay, who drew up initial ideas for the vessel on a dinner napkin. It was Ismay who reduced the number of life boats from more than 60 to 16 so that the well-heeled passengers would have more room to promenade.

The enormity of that decision is evident everywhere, but never more so than when you first see some of the objects of daily life on the ship. Like the waiter's jacket. You can still read where he'd penned his name, "Broome," on the inside collar. Broome's jacket, buried 2.5 miles beneath the sea for three- quarters of a century, took two years to be restored with distilled water rinses to remove the salt and iron oxide and stabilize the fabric. In the next room, the recovered silver tea service in all its grandeur is somehow not as impressive that one everyday jacket.

Or the jar of olives, still sealed, as though a long-dead cook might still grab them off the shelf. That jar is displayed in the same room as the tiny, mottled dinner check, so deftly recovered by the Nautile, with an ink scrawl or two still visible. Hard to imagine where a scrap of paper was more enduring than 1,500 people.

In "Titanic" the movie, many scenes of the great romance take place in the first-class reception room, the one with the sweeping, grand stairway. Recreated here with photographs and floor tiles, the room shows off one of the room's very bronze cherubs retrieved intact from the bottom of the sea. More poignant, this room also holds an engraved silver watch belonging to one Thomas William Solomon Brown, who didn't make it. It was found in 1993 and presented to his daughter, Edith, who did.

Following are several paintings meant to show the vessel, perhaps as it would have appeared from the lifeboats. The audio repeats the tale, as all the documentaries do, as the movie did, the first alarms, the movement of passengers to the upper decks, the scramble for lifeboats, a succession of scenes which, no matter how many times I hear them, keep me on the edge of my figurative seat, wondering if it might end differently this time.

It never does. And the dull horror is brought home as well as can be in one exhibit hall. In a center case are recovered life jackets; to the side, a ship railing looks out over an endless dark, depicting a sea "like black glass," above which twinkle the stars positioned exactly as they were that April 13, 1912. The object is to make visitors feel the enormity of the night. It's an illusion you want shattered.

And the next room does it. This is the aftermath, art commemorating the disaster, movie posters, a chess table made of the ship's driftwood, a case of records, one playing a bouncy little ditty about the wreck that is said to be one of the three most written-about events in history, alongside the Civil War and the life of Jesus.

Easing the heaviness is one thing. Comic relief is something else again. When you leave this area, you get to the most unsinkable of all enterprises: the gift shop. The following are some items you can purchase to remember the solemn event of April 15, 1912 (does anyone else find it coincidental that ithappened on tax day?): The inflatable Titanic ship (about 16 long) comes with a real working motor...and inflatable iceberg ($19.99, presumably unsinkable, unless you have a pin on you), White Star Line Titanic bathrobe ($74.99, for when you expect to get out of the water), Titanic chocolate (a taste of disaster, $3.99),Titanic key chain ($6.99, probably bad luck to put your boat keys on). The only relic you can buy here that actually comes from the ship itself are small chips of Titanic coal ($11.99), but like the movie, that's too realistic for me. The three-hour magnum opus should have an intermission. Theyshould charge you $4, show you that voluptuous love story, turn up the lights and say "Okay, whoever wants to see the horrible ending, you have to pay another $4, the rest of you can go home." I would. And then for my money, literally, it would end right there. Finally, on the Titanic, the ending would be different.

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