Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition in London celebrates the golden age of travel

Perched flat on an electronic screen that pulsates with virtual, rippling waves, the intricately carved piece of oak has a surreal, bewitching quality. It's said to be the largest remaining fragment of RMS Titanic; a panel from the first-class lounge found drifting in the North Atlantic Ocean after the ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. 

Usually displayed at the maritime museum of Halifax, Nova Scotia, it's a highlight of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, an ode to cruising's golden era at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. It's inevitable in an exhibition about great ships that Titanic makes an appearance, and indeed also on show here is a half-broken deckchair from the iconic liner, and clips from James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster movie, which rekindled people's interest and affection in the doomed vessel (Jack and Rose, aka Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, are here on a big screen, embracing in the frigid Atlantic waters).

But Titanic plays a mere support role in an exhibition that will delight cruise lovers and anyone fascinated by the grand old vessels of yesteryear. You're urged to "step aboard" to discover the "romantic and remarkable age of ocean travel", from the mid-19th century, when travelling by ship began to emerge as a thing of pleasure and not just for trade, war, empire-building, emigration and immigration, to the late 1960s, when it was largely superseded by jet-setting. 

Cruising, of course, has boomed in popularity again in recent years, a trend touched on in an exhibition sponsored by one of today's most luxurious operators, Viking Cruises. Displayed across a series of rooms are more than 200 objects from some of the most ostentatious vessels to ever sail the oceans. Most items are as beautifully crafted and decorative as you'd expect from the V&A, which faces the Natural History and Science museums in leafy South Kensington, and boasts a fabulous permanent collection of arts and crafts gleaned from across the world (plus a new $95 million Exhibition Road Quarter, providing extra gallery space, a stylish courtyard and sleek cafe). 

Entering the exhibition – which charts various aspects of ocean travel, from ships' architecture and engineering to life on board and its pop-cultural impact – you're greeted by a soundtrack of nautical noises: the clamour and excitement of passengers rubbing shoulders at the port and on the gangways, ship horns sporadically blaring and seagulls squawking.

The first thing to catch my eye is a scale model of Cunard's RMS Queen Elizabeth (launched in 1938, it was one of the many epic liners built in the shipyards of Clydebank in Greater Glasgow). Models such as this would adorn shipping office windows to entice customers into signing up for a voyage.

It's next to a wall of bygone posters that advertise exotic journeys from companies including Cunard, White Star Line (the owner of Titanic) and P&O, the world's oldest cruise line, formerly the British Peninsular & Orient Steam Navigation Company.

One poster flags up the "Boomerang Trip", between Britain and Australia, with first-class return tickets priced from £200 ($355). Moving on, an array of gorgeous ship furniture and fittings steal the attention. As passengers became more affluent and discerning, liner interiors were crafted to mimic those of high-end hotels, and talents such as Charles Mewes – architect of the Ritz hotels in Paris and London – were courted by shipbuilders to create floating palaces.

There's some impressive design here from British, American and Italian vessels – I love the colourful Asian-flavoured earthenware tiles of SS Sutlej, a P&O liner that was named after a Indian river and ferried passengers between London and Sydney via Asia. Yet it's the sophisticated interwar French jewels of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (CGT) that really dazzle. 

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Plucked from the first-class dining room of SS Ile de France, a ship renowned for its Palace of Versailles-like interior, there's a pair of velvet chairs nestled before metalwork doors etched with the sun – the emblem of Sun King Louis XIV. Another room has soaring gold leaf lacquer panels from the first-class smoking room of SS Normandie, regarded as a pinnacle of Art Deco design, and the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built.

A source of French national pride when launched in 1935, it sank, seven years later, in Manhattan harbour. Having been seized by US authorities to be turned into a World War II troop carrier, a fire broke out and the ship capsized from the weight of the water used to douse the flames.

Fortunately much of its artwork had been taken off before its demise. Once the Normandie's main rival for the Blue Riband, the honour awarded for the fastest transatlantic crossing, Cunard's RMS Queen Mary (1936) is one of the few classic old dames still intact, now permanently berthed as a visitor attraction at Long Beach, California.

A Byzantine-style altarpiece from the ship's chapel, dubbed the "Madonna of the Atlantic", graces this exhibition, alongside a Torah ark from Mary's synagogue (many Jews travelled by ship in the 1930s, fleeing persecution in Europe). A flurry of paintings, photographs and archive video footage convey what life was like on board some of the famous ships, with black and white shots of dapper couples dancing, ballroom-style. 

There's a chilling clip, too, of Adolf Hitler shaking hands with the crew of the Robert Ley, a vessel purpose-built to take Nazis on Mediterranean cruises. The most eclectic items in the exhibition are scattered across its largest, starry-skied space. There are quirky installations – mannequins bathing in a top-deck pool and figures draped in evening gear, pouring down a staircase in a pre-dinner ritual that the French called the grande descente. 

You can browse cabinets of fine crockery, linen and extravagant menus and, from the children's playroom of P&O's SS Canberra, a mural festooned with English nursery rhyme characters Humpty Dumpty and Little-Bo Peep. Also flaunted here is a diamond and pearl Cartier tiara salvaged from RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915, and an elegant grey Christian Dior suit worn by the silver-screen icon Marlene Dietrich as she disembarked the Queen Elizabeth in New York in 1950. Beside it is deluxe Maison Goyard leather luggage once belonging to Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor. 

The former king and his other half, Wallis Simpson, made several transatlantic journeys and are once said to have taken 100 pieces on SS United States, which remains the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. In 1952 it set a Blue Riband record – three days, 10 hours, 40 minutes from New York to Le Havre – that has never been beaten.

Long retired and rusting, the ship has been tied to a pier in Philadelphia for 20 years, but rumours are stirring that it could be restored and reborn as a luxury vessel. As I exit the exhibition, passing a promotional model of another fancy new ship, Viking Jupiter – which is set to be christened in Oslo next year – my thoughts turn to booking my next ocean cruise. After an hour or so in here, it's hard to think of anything else.

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General admission to the V&A is free, although there's a suggested donation of £5 ($9). Tickets for the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition are £18.50 ($33). It's on in London until June 17, before transferring to the new V&A Museum of Design, due to open on Dundee's waterfront on September 15. See vam.ac.uk

Steve McKenna travelled at his own expense

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