Just spent a long weekend in a city with one of the most violent reputations in the UK visiting a £100M purpose-built exhibition centre commemorating the most infamous maritime disaster in history. “A bit morbid isn’t it?”, asked a friend before I set off.
You’d have thought the locals in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, might have been a bit more enthusiastic:
Hotel Receptionist: “Is this your first time in Belfast, Sir?”
Me: “Yes it is. I’m here to see Titanic”
Receptionist: “Oh I’m sorry…you’re just a tad late. It sank a hundred years ago.”
She wasn’t unenthusiastic, just dishing me the famed Northern Irish sense of humour. Though there for only a fleeting visit I did get more than a sense that the locals are very proud of the Titanic Belfast centre mixed with bemusement at its extraordinary instant international success. Since opening in April just before the Centenary of the disaster, the exhibition is attracting visitors in droves from all over the world.
You can take a pleasant stroll from the city centre and along the River Lagan to the Titanic Quarter in around 20 mins or so. By chance, my hotel was situated right next door to the school where Titanic’s architect, Thomas Andrews, was educated (yeah him who advised ‘Rose’ in that movie to get to the Lifeboats quick).
Just to be clear on why I was visiting Titanic and Belfast at all. I’m neither a morbid ‘disaster voyeur’ nor infatuated with that movie. Belfast was chosen out of 3 alternative weekends away I gave as a gift to my ma for Mothers Day back in March. She chose Belfast, simple as that. Neither of us had been to either Belfast or Northern Ireland before so a real adventure was afoot. We weren’t let down.
A common reaction from friends etc when I told them where I was going (apart from complete incomprehension at why I would visit formerly strife-ridden Northern Ireland) was their preconception as to what the exhibition experience would be like. Many thought I was going just to gawp at artifacts retrieved from the sea bed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Titanic Belfast is without doubt one of the best museum/exhibition experiences I have ever encountered…and I’m an Arts and History graduate and so have visited many. Only one such place has captured my attention as much all the way through as this did and that’s the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem.
Titanic Belfast is ultra-modern, hi-tec and state-of-the-art. If you think you are going to go there to find bits and pieces dredged up from the wreck or manikins displaying the fashions of the time forget it. The attention to detail – in keeping with the vision behind Titanic herself – is impressive. Though you can only see it from the air, the centre is built-in the shape of a star – the emblem of the White Star Line that commissioned her. From the outside, the building resembles both the bow of the ship and an iceberg and the dimensions of the ‘bow’ are correct from the ground up as to what they would have been from the sea surface up when she was afloat. The impressive Titanic name plate outside the entrance weighs exactly the same as the iron chains used to steady and anchor her. The 6 floors on which the exhibition galleries are housed mimic the decks of the ship These little and large attentions to detail continue on all the way through your visit inside the centre to outside where you can walk along the slipway where the ship stood in dry dock in true dimensions from bow to stern.
A journey through the galleries starts with an overview of Belfast at the time – the most prolific shipbuilding city of its day. If there’s one thing all the films made of the story forget…it was the relationship between Titanic and her city of birth. As Kate and Leo gasped for that last breath hanging on the stern as Titanic finally went down, on-screen it was the word ‘ Titanic Liverpool’ we saw painted over that voluminous arse (the ship’s, not Kate’s). The ship was registered in Liverpool but built in Belfast and only after I visited the exhibition did I understand the huge connect between the city, its people and the ship. When she was released from dry dock into the River Lagan, at the time she was the biggest man-made object ever moved on our planet.
Tip: overcome any impatience to move quickly away from the introductory gallery to the ‘meatier’ parts. If this is your first trip to Belfast then you will already have been disarmed of your preconceptions of the city in a very pleasant way, especially if you are visiting from elsewhere in the UK. Titanic was at the heart and soul of the pride of people of Belfast. When she launched, 100,000 locals queued to see it. Big numbers today, let alone in the early 20thC. For mainland British visitors, prepare to learn about some uncomfortable truths about our part in the dissent that lead to ‘The Troubles’.
The whole experience from gallery 1 to the end is spot on for our media and digital generation. As you journey through the galleries learning about the life of the men physically building her, their pay and working conditions to even taking a ride – a very cleaver and informative and non-gimmicky ride around the docks amid the builders on cable cars…you gain an insight into their lives.
You can do the Titanic adventure 3 ways – join a guided group, walk around with self operated audio guides or just wander around at will. I chose the latter.The test of this exhibition for me was that I wasn’t once tempted to amble through as an independent visitor that could have fast-forwarded myself through. I was already very familiar with the Titanic story but I was drawn to stop and learn more and I really did.
Two major highlights for me. The cable car ride already mentioned and the ‘virtual lift’. This is an unfurnished space surrounded on 3 sides by cine-projector walls of the highest class. A short animated looped film takes you from the Engine Room to the Bridge with everything displayed all around you in real perspective so you really feel you are there. I have to admit to gasping when the Grand Staircase came into view. Happily, Leo was not under the clock.
The Titanic adventure will take you beyond the tragedy to the aftermath and the repercussions. But then it goes even more hi-tec to take you on a voyage to the discovery of the wreck site. See how and why it was sought and found….overfly it standing on glass floors the scenes where Titanic lies.
The Titanic story remains etched in our minds even 100 years after the disaster. It’s more than the story of a disaster. It’s the most famous ship sinking story there has ever been and yes more than probably due to the presence and loss of some of the ultra rich of the time who were on-board.
You won’t come out of Titanic Belfast depressed – I guarantee you that. You will come out impressed by the hi-tec, impressed by the helpfulness and knowledge of the staff from beginning to end, impressed by so many ‘wow’ factors….and I hope you will express ‘well…I never knew that’ as often as I did. Yet the tragedy of the story is not airbrushed out amid the hi-tec. It was interesting that as independent visitors making our way around, we kept bumping into similar independent visitors doing the same. It was interesting to see them go through similar experiences we did as they discovered the story. When we all got to the part of the moment of tragedy, it was interesting how we all went very quiet, thoughtful…and respectful. The movies all end at this point but the story went on long beyond this as I was to find.
Our visit to Titanic Belfast cost us all of £23 for the two of us. The centre’s guide advises that you need 3 hours to see the full exhibition plus the slipways where Titanic was built. They were spot on. We were not ambling around but just fascinated by each and every gallery and took time to read, touch and swipe screens, stand on floor maps and make them move, watch film footage, stand over the ocean floor on glass and ride above the wreck…ride through the construction of the ship….stand in a 3-D space and see the ship’s First Class Dining Room appear around you….
Not once did I feel in any way this was a bad-taste theme park. As a former degree student of history…it more than met my expectations.