'Shipwreck!' at the Maryland Science Center

It doesn't look much like coins, this misshapen hunk of stone-encrusted metal. But peer closer, and the coral-like formation turns out to be several dozen 19th-century half-dollars, clinging together like barnacles on a rock.

Sure, it's ugly. That's what spending more than a century at the bottom of the ocean can do to a coin.

This numismatic mutation is but one of the many wonders on display as part of "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure," a traveling exhibition opening Friday at the Maryland Science Center. Part pirate fantasy, part high-tech odyssey, the exhibit is devoted to treasure, highlighting both the scurvy scalawags who plundered it and the modern adventurers who spend years scouring the ocean floor trying to recover it.

The result is a happily schizophrenic exhibit that starts off talking about pirates, Jolly Rogers and unfortunate people walking the plank. The exhibit then gives way to a display of high-tech gadgetry used to find and recover the booty from shipwrecks that, for decades or even centuries, have rested quietly on the ocean floor. At the center of "Shipwreck!" is a treasure-trove of artifacts salvaged from the wreck of the Republic, a ship that sank about 100 miles off the Georgia coast in 1865 as it was trying to deliver commercial goods to a New Orleans still reeling from the ravages of the Civil War.

"We really want to show the excitement, the thrill of deep-water- ocean shipwreck exploration," said Ellen Gerth, collections curator for Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations, the company that found the wreck of the Republic some 1,700 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean. "So few people realize that the ocean is truly this vast, unexplored frontier."

"Shipwreck!" occupies about 8,000 square feet on the center's second floor, and it starts off with a pirate display clearly designed with kids and the "Pirates of the Caribbean"-obsessed in mind. Visitors can fashion their own pirate on a computer screen (eye patch optional), practice tying nautical knots and shake boxes of mysterious booty (which could hold coffee beans, lead shot or gold coins). Pirate flags are unfurled, including Calico Jack's famous Jolly Roger and Blackbeard's dancing skeleton. In a touch straight out of an amusement park house of horrors, the (fake) skeletal remains of one unfortunate pirate, his red cap still in place, hang from a ship's bow.

Displays showcase pirate artifacts, such as lead shot and clay pipes, and explain the differences between pirates, privateers (essentially pirates licensed by the government), buccaneers (originally restricted to the Caribbean, although now used to refer to any pirate) and Barbary corsairs (who operated out of North Africa).

"For whatever reason, people seem to gravitate to pirate legend and pirate lore," said Chris Cropper, the center's senior director of marketing. "There's just something fascinating about it."

The second half of "Shipwreck!" details the work of Odyssey, focusing primarily on the Republic, which was built in Baltimore in 1853. Launched as the Tennessee, it was used for commercial purposes and as a warship by both the Union and Confederate navies. While on its way to New Orleans after the war, loaded with goods and some $400,000 in coins, it sank in a squall.

"Shipwreck!" includes a full-size model of the Zeus, the underwater robotic arm used to recover objects from the wreck of the Republic. There's also a wind chamber, where one can experience what it's like to experience 95-mph winds, and a robotic arm one can operate to retrieve coins from the floor.

But most fascinating are scores of artifacts recovered from the ship, many in amazingly pristine condition. While some of the coins bear testimony to the ravages of salt water and time, others remain in nearly mint condition. Those include a selection of $20 double-eagle gold pieces valued at $20,000 each.

Some 100 bottles taken from the ship — a small fraction of the 8,000 recovered — are also displayed. They once held such wonders as Barry's Tricopherous for the Skin and Burnett's "Cocoaine" Hair Products (as well as Cathedral Pickles and Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire sauce).

"It's got a lot of that Titanic appeal to it in many ways," Cropper said.

The exhibit also has some unusual — and somewhat disquieting — ties to the present, Gerth notes. Just two days after the exhibit was set up in New Orleans — enabling the Republic to finally reach its destination, albeit 140 years late — Hurricane Katrina hit. And now the Republic has, in a sense, returned to its birthplace — in a week when some of the year's heaviest rains have been falling.

"If a hurricane hits Baltimore, I'm going to be really freaked out," Cropper said.


If you go: "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" runs through Jan. 31 at the Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St. General admission is $11.95-$24.95. There is an additional charge for the pirate exhibit, which varies. Call 410-685-5225 or go to mdsci.org.

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