I would hazard a guess that there are very few people in the western world that haven’t heard the story of the Titanic. Not to spoil the plot if you haven’t but the basics are: Ship was built, people get on ship, ship sets off, ship hits iceberg, ship sinks, lots of people killed due to lack of life saving equipment, maritime lessons learnt, disaster captures public's imagination and spawns romanticised movies.
Titanic Belfast is a visitor attraction that opened in April 2012, it is located on the site of what used to be the main part of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in what is now known as Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The shipyards in Belfast produced many ships but undoubtedly the most famous (sadly for tragic reasons), as you might have guessed, was the RMS Titanic.
On the day we visited, approximately 5 months after the grand opening, there were plenty of typical Belfast sun-showers and the Titanic Belfast building glistened in the sun and rain as we got out of the taxi and walked the short distance to the main entrance. This was the first time we'd been inside and we were intrigued yet outside there were plenty of rainbows.
To tell the truth I was a little apprehensive in case it was just going to be another morbid cashing in of the disaster. Thankfully it wasn't. I found it to be something a little bit different to anything I’d expected prior to our visit. I had heard mixed reviews from people who had already been but it soon became apparent that the attraction was less about the drama and more about the history. I feel many who were giving negative reviews were really hoping for a theme park version of the movies or were so into their nautical or local history that they had their fussy blinkers on.
The main areas inside the attraction provide an insight into what it was like in Belfast at the time the ship was built, a guide to it’s construction, what it was like on board the ship and what happened after the disaster, from reaction at the time to examination of the wreck. It was very informative, revealing realities, dispelling myths and channelling the sensationalism that made the disaster so ‘popular’ in modern culture, turning public intrigue into a positive learning experience.
The best part of the experience for me were the visuals and the clarity of the information. These are the parts of the exhibits that I think stood out in an intriguing and good way:
- The scaled up - photos of Belfast in the 'Boomtown Belfast' section
- The life-sized scene displayed on a screen in the Shipyard ride of some actors showing what riveting was like.
- Stories of the realities in 'The Aftermath', the sort of things you don't hear about in the movies, the logistics of the rescues and the impact on land as well as at sea.
- At the end in the 'Titanic Beneath' section, it was very good from a marine archaeology perspective as you can watch a short movie about the wreck of the Titanic and walk over a projection of the ship resting on the seabed and explore the debris field on interactive maps.
- The sculpture outside the main door was rather impressive too, apparently it's called Titanica and was sculpted by a man called Rowan Gillespie.
The most disappointing bit for me was 'The Launch' section which for all the interactivity and moving visuals elsewhere, this was rather static and missing the moment of awe that it has the potential to. I think I'm probably singling this part out for criticism because of what I imagined it to be like, a projection onto the glass of the footage from the launch lined up so you feel like you're there and immersed into it. What is actually there are some replica wooden docking chains on the floor with a small screen hanging from the ceiling showing the launch of the ships hull, there is a filter on the windows which is a representation of the shipyard that fades in an out as the lights are lifted to reveal the slipways today. I'm probably just being picky and being a bit harsh but I just thought it could have been done better given the high standards set by the visuals elsewhere and the unique key significance of over looking the exact site the ship was launched.
Here is the promotional concept video showing how it must have hoped that section would look, it's very close and one of the only things I didn't see was a lifeboat simulation – seemingly similar to that in the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum in New York. I guess if it was left out it was probably seen as potentially in bad taste though kids in general (and us too) would no doubt have loved it as much as we enjoyed tipping back and forth on the one on the Intrepid – which was lots.
The other mildly disappointing aspect of our visit was that we got left hanging on the shipyard ride for a few minutes just feet from the end due to some idiot people standing up in another pod and some other logistical problems with some folks with a buggy but we amused ourselves pondering if it was worth jumping given there was a fake bar to head to just feet away (though a long drop separating us)!
The other strange thing was the lack of physical material from the time or the ship being inside the building. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing as by all accounts the folks who made it didn't want to recreate the ship but rather interpret it.
So if you’re looking for a solid material connection to the time and place that isn't a model or a replica, the SS Nomadic and the old Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices, both of which are practically outside Titanic Belfast, are your best next stops.
Our visit to Titanic Belfast was on a Friday afternoon and it was quite busy. I think we'll go again at some point but I'd like to go when it's very quiet so I could take more time to read and absorb it all. Also, a quiet time might limit the chances of going around the museum at the same time as an idiot, in our case a 50+ old man - aka someone old enough to know better, who in blatant disregard to the signs and the staff who told him not to, wandered around the exhibitions using flash photography, annoying everyone as he did so. After being blinded in dark rooms on more than one occasion, I gave him a glare I'm not entirely proud of.
Some other good things about Titanic Belfast are very helpful and friendly staff. The building also has some great views of Belfast and the River Lagan and surrounding area. There are toilets throughout which is handy and they were very nice and clean too. I also loved that they had somewhat incorporated into the attraction the route Norngirl and I take in all museums, that of heading to the top and working our way down.
The restaurant downstairs on the far left from the main entrance looked to have nice food and the prices are about on par with the likes of an inner city café. The gift shop prices were a little Titanic but not unusual for a visitor attraction gift shop. We didn't buy anything and to be totally honest, I thought it was all a bit much in the shop, to say the exhibitions interpret the Titanic story with consideration and understanding, the shop was more like a Titanic themed Disney Store. I mean where would you wear a Titanic sailor hat? In fairness though I did try it on... I know!
The exhibits were very educational about their subject matter and I'd recommend it to anyone visiting Belfast. I think you'll get a lot more out of it if it's quiet as people got in our way a lot of the time (blocking views, stopping suddenly in front of you when walking in the dark, that sort of thing), but if you are patient it's worth playing with all the interactive exhibits and reading everything through, I thought it was very well done. Given the subject matter, I also thought the exhibits kept good balance between holding my attention and teaching - I learnt a lot! Not so much about the headline event that booked the ship’s place in history, but about the time it was built, the place it was built, the people who built it and the ship itself.