I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog but, although I now live in England, I’m originally from Belfast. I was home a few weeks ago and took the time to go to Titanic Belfast, the relatively new tourist attraction down by the old Harland and Wolff docks (with regards to my timing – it took me this long to finish writing up, this is in no way a post-12th piece). Belfast doesn’t usually do tourism well; I do think that it’s a nice place to visit, with plenty of shops, pubs and restaurants to provide a fun day out, but it doesn’t generally make the most of the tourist attractions around the place. There’s the Giant’s Causeway up the coast, the Crown Liquor Saloon and possibly those troubles mural tours or the Bushmills distillery … then you’re a bit stuck.*
This isn’t to say that Belfast doesn’t have the potential to do well. It can be a very friendly city and is surrounded by wonderful scenery and unique places and history, but due to a mixture of apathy and parts of that history it has never really made a success of these. Things seemed especially ridiculous when in the late nineties, at the height of Leo Di Caprio fueled hype, Tennesse and Missouri were trying to cash in on Titanic tourism but Belfast still had nothing.
The new Titanic building, unveiled in 2012, aimed to change that. It’s a striking looking building – maybe not to everyone’s taste but I like that angular shape, designed to look like the front of the ship. The location on the other hand is undoubtedly perfect, next to the slipways used for the Titanic and within a few minutes walking distance of similar attractions in the area – the SS Nomadic, newly restored; the Paint Hall, now used as a film set for Game of Thrones; the dry dock and pump house for the ship, also now restored for tourists. It’s also just a short 15 minute walk from the town centre, and on the bus route to the City Airport. It may not have been cheap, but for once it appears that Belfast may have got the hang of this tourism lark.
The exhibition opens with a section on nineteenth century, industrial Belfast and the growth of the shipyards – for me this was one of the most interesting sections. The exhibit itself (and the ones that follow) is based very much on this location and on the story of the ship. There are very few artifacts from the ship itself, though there are typical examples of various items that would have been associated with it or with the shipbuilding industry. The focus is on the narrative and the characters, but thankfully it isn’t just some whitewashed propaganda for the old glory of the days when these luxury ships were built in Belfast. As my taxi driver pointed out on the way in, not everyone would have fond memories of the times and the industry – it was dangerous work, the unions were marginalized and the political situation was in the middle of the Home Rule Crises. These are mentioned, even if they’re not necessarily the main focus, and it does created a sense of balance.
After that, there is the standard modern museum cart ride. I remember my first one of these, at the Knight Rider in Carrickfergus, and it was exciting then. Now it seems somewhat shoehorned in, but the actual design and construction of the ship could be a dry topic for many people so it’s probably a good decision to streamline this section slightly. Having recently been to some of the historical ships in Portsmouth, I’d just note again that the progress made over time in the technology is astounding.
Fitting Out and Launch
Next the boat goes to Southampton (who have their own Titanic museum) to be fit out. This is probably a very interesting section for many people, with the examples and descriptions of the luxury on board ship. While there was certainly a bit difference between the accommodation for the different classes on board, even the third class cabins and common areas are pretty well kit out. We also start to see the stories of the passengers as they join the ship. There’s a lot of different stories and reasons for travel and they do add an element of colour and depth to the story, though at times the exhibit can lean a bit heavily towards anecdotes. This isn’t a museum exhibition that’s full of authentic objects. It’s a good contrast to the Mary Rose exhibition in Portsmouth (which I’ll hopefully finish off a write up on sometime) – that was full of items retrieved from the ship and used to piece together the history, while this focuses on telling stories related to the ship and leans much more heavily on mock ups and recreations.
The Sinking and Aftermath
The exhibition doesn’t have a constant tone the whole way through. For good reason, how could you document the growth of a shipbuilding town and the tragic death of hundreds in the same way? This section begins starkly with the ice berg warning and communications, then slowly builds up as the survivors reach safety and start to tell their story. We can see the immediate reaction through newspaper articles of the time and the scale of the disaster through records of the passengers. At the end, we reach a section investigating what happened and who was to blame, using details of the US and British inquests of the time. It’s still grim stuff but some lighter moments start to creep back in with heroic stories coming to light. It’s a very well done chapter and and is paced superbly.
Finally we get two small sections on the Titanic in popular culture and on the investigation of the wreckage. The former is interesting, but possibly could have been expanded a bit – coming across more as a short list of films and novels related to the disaster. The latter has a narrated cinema section of a submersible traveling the length of the ruined ship. It has potential, but the narration is pointless and the whole section doesn’t add much to the experience.
In all, it’s a good exhibition and definitely a sign of Belfast finally “getting” tourism. There’s a lot of Titanic museums out there and I’m sure they struggle to find a unique element (I may well end up at Southampton’s at some stage), but the particular history of Belfast and the ship would surely make this the pick of the bunch. Though I found the final sections a bit weak, it’s a well designed exhibition that negotiates a fine line between accessibility and detail and ends up as an enjoyable visit for a whole range of ages and interests. There’s a lot of different styles and media forms thrown together and it helps to make a tour that never becomes stale or goes on for too long. Anyone who is thinking of visiting Belfast should definitely check it out. Anyone who isn’t thinking of visiting Belfast, might want to start reconsidering the city.