Published April 11. 2012 5:08PM Updated April 12. 2012 7:01PM
Mystic — Peek in at how rooms on the Titanic might have looked — the Marconi room, where wireless transmissions were made, or a cabin, where travelers might have sat on the burgundy velvet bedspread.
Put your hand on a faux, cold iceberg, glowing under a dome ceiling of pin-prick lights that look like stars in a night sky.
Toy with touch-screen technology to discover a treasure trove of Titanic facts.
See the remotely operated vehicle that explorer Robert Ballard used when he discovered the Titanic shipwreck in 1985 off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
The Mystic Aquarium's latest exhibit, "Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below," gives you a full sensory experience as it recreates elements of the famous ship's history, retracing its glorious promise, its tragic sinking and the shipwreck's eventual discovery.
The exhibit comes, in part, courtesy of Ballard, who is president of the Sea Research Foundation's Institute for Exploration. Ballard collaborated on it with Tim Delaney, who was an "Imagineer" for Walt Disney for 30 years before starting his own company, Tim J. Delaney Design.
The Sea Research Foundation, which operates Mystic Aquarium, previewed the permanent exhibit Wednesday.
"This is just a magical moment," Ballard said.
It is part of a $20 million effort to renovate Mystic Aquarium, according to Stephen M. Coan, Sea Research Foundation president and CEO. United Technologies Corp. financially supported the project.
Of course, the timing of the opening neatly dovetails with Sunday's 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking.
Ballard believes that one of the vital purposes of the exhibit is to emphasize how important it is to preserve shipwrecks like this.
When Ballard discovered the Titanic, his team never came in contact with the ship. Others have not been so careful. Ballard compared submarines that have landed on the Titanic to bulls in a china shop.
"The damage I'm seeing is not done by Mother Nature," he said. "It's being done by the submarines that are landing on its deck, crushing its deck. (One) knocked over the crow's nest. That really ticked me off."
Treasure hunters have pilfered artifacts, too.
Ballard hopes that people visiting "Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below," which boasts no real Titanic artifacts, just recreations, will realize that "the ocean is the biggest museum on Earth, but there's no guard on the door."
But he hopes that will change. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., recently introduced legislation to amend the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986 to protect the site from salvage and intrusive research.
In reality, Ballard said, the Titanic wreckage is a memorial site and should be treated as such.
"You know, you don't go to Gettysburg with a shovel. You don't take belt buckles from the Arizona. Why are you allowed to totally destroy the Titanic?" he said.
Surrounded by sound
Ballard described Delaney as the magic behind the Titanic exhibit.
They have known each other for three decades. Ballard was working with Walt Disney on Epcot's Living Seas Pavilion when he met Delaney. On Wednesday, Ballard was proudly wearing the Mickey Mouse watch that Walt Disney once gave to him.
Delaney spoke about how "Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below" deals with exploration and discovery as it details this story of high drama and high technology.
Visitors learn in depth about Ballard's discovery of the Titanic in a new film.
They can wander in and out of the hull of a ship built into the exhibit and an engine room inspired by the Titanic's. They can walk among almost mural-sized photos of Titanic passengers — some who survived, some who perished.
Through it all, sound surrounds exhibit-goers — jaunty music before the ship leaves port, waves lapping against an imagined ship. Light and shadow ripple on the floor, like a shimmering water reflection.
For Ballard, one of the most poignant pieces of the exhibit is a recreation of victims' shoes scattered on a sandy rock. Their bodies have long ago disappeared, but their shoes remain as what he calls their tombstones.
Ballard said every generation rediscovers the Titanic, and some of what draws people's interest is the human drama on board.
"The deck of the Titanic became a morality play. You had Ismay, the owner, sneak off — the villain. Then, you had the boy who had just turned 18 the day before, during the passage. He was offered a seat in the lifeboat, and he said, 'I'm sorry, I'm now a man, and I will stand with the other men.' And he stood and died. The Strauses, who were from Macy's department store, were in their 80s. She gets in the lifeboat. Her husband starts to get in, and the officer stops him. He said, 'Sorry, sir, woman and children only.' She's sitting in the lifeboat, looks up and says, 'Where he goes, I go.' She climbs out of the lifeboat to die with him.
"I think everyone wonders, would you have gotten out of the lifeboat? ... I think everyone wonders what they would do."