After previous summer exhibitions detailing past worlds found through artifacts and fossils buried on land, the Mayborn Museum goes under the sea for history in its new touring show “SHIPWRECK! Pirates & Treasure” that opens an 18-week run Saturday.
As in many of the thousands of ships lying at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a hurricane in the story. Or two.
Deep-ocean exploration and recovery firm Odyssey Marine Exploration initially created a New Orleans museum to tell the story of the sunken commercial steamship S.S. Republic, which unknowingly sailed into the heart of a hurricane and went down off the Georgia coast Oct. 25, 1865, en route to New Orleans from New York City.
The Tampa, Florida-based Odyssey explored the Republic’s resting place on the sea floor and recovered much of its varied cargo — gold and silver coins, glass bottles, coal, lead spigots, china, medicine pots and more — much of which company executives intended to display in the museum.
That museum, however, opened days before Hurricane Katrina — hurricane No. 2 — struck in 2005 and while the museum located in the French Quarter missed severe damage, its business plan took a hit in the hurricane’s aftermath. “(The museum) was not sustainable due to (depressed) ticket sales,” explained exhibit manager Adam Tate, at the Mayborn this week to install the exhibit.
Plan B put the museum’s and Odyssey’s story on the road in the form of the touring show “SHIPWRECK!,” which has now visited some 15 cities.
The story of the S.S. Republic and its recovery still is at the heart of “SHIPWRECK!,” but expanded to the broader subjects of undersea archaeology and pirates, the latter a partial nod nod to the box office whirlwind of the 2000s, “Pirates of Caribbean” and its sequels.
“Not everybody knows Odyssey, but everybody knows pirates,” Tate said.
The pirate section of “SHIPWRECK!” includes kid-friendly interactives that let exhibit-goers “build a buccaneer” image sporting their faces, using telescopes to spy ships on the horizon and identify famous pirates’ flags. An information board offers reasons why pirates became identified with earrings, peg legs parrots and rats.
“SHIPWRECK!”also provides insight into how modern nautical archaeologists find and recover sunken ships, from a fullsized robotic Remotely Operated Vehicle dominating the Mayborn lobby to video displays allowing exhibit visitors to zoom in on undersea images to find objects and, occasionally, sea life. There’s a robotic arm simulation and booths allowing participants to feel hurricane-like winds up to 75 miles per hour — safely, of course.
The S.S. Republic was carrying passengers, money and goods to rebuild the New Orleans and area economy in the months after the Civil War and its discovery proved a rich find for historians, Tate noted. More than 51,000 coins were recovered, the great majority silver ones. Time and seawater have cemented most of the coins into large clumps.
The exhibit shows individual gold and silver coins in sparkling mint condition. Odyssey curator Ellen Gerth will install those coins and a small cannon from a pirate ship between 2 and 4 p.m. Thursday.
“SHIPWRECK!” also features findings from the S.S. Gairsoppa, torpedoed by a German submarine off the Irish coast in 1941; the 18th century English warship H.M.S. Victory, sunk Oct. 5, 1744 in an English Channel story; and an unidentified 17th century merchant ship sunk in 1622 by a hurricane off the Dry Tortugas Islands near Florida.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Mayborn Museum will offer Treasure Tuesday activities for kids on Tuesdays in July.