Titanic Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland
53 children died when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. For the people of Belfast, it was really 54. The Titanic was their baby, built in the shipyards of the city, and it never made it to adulthood before it sank to a watery grave on April 15 1912.
Many countries, many cities, can justifiably lay claim to a part of the tragedy that occurred that day as the ‘unsinkable’ ocean liner did just what many thought it could never do. But it was felt hard in Belfast because so many years and so much work had gone into its creation.
The story of the Titanic could well have been replayed in the story of Belfast. In the early 20th century the city’s economy and the livelihood of many of its residents were reliant on industry.
Shipbuilding was a large part of that and the Titanic sinking could have pulled down the city with it. But – luckily for the locals – it was not the construction of the ship which was called into question but the way the British owner White Star Line operated the vessel.
The tragedy left a permanent mark on Belfast, though. More than a hundred years on, its legacy is felt throughout the capital of Northern Ireland – no more so than in the Titanic Quarter.
It’s here that the epic monument to the history of the ship was erected in time for the centenary of its sinking in 2012. ‘Titanic Belfast’, as it’s called, is a £97 million museum tracing the story of the ship from Belfast’s industrial history through to modern day efforts to view and protect the wreckage.
Its exhibitions cover every step from the construction of the ship, to the interior fit out, the sinking, the subsequent inquiries and even the movies it has inspired.
“Near, far, wherever you are…,” the voice of Celine Dion sings out in one of the galleries. The story of Titanic has never been forgotten – moviemakers like James Cameron have made sure of that. But it’s unlikely it would quickly slip from our memories regardless.
There is something about the symbolism of human triumph quashed in such a dramatic way that is eternal. And that doesn’t even take into account the power of thousands of individual stories intertwined across the Atlantic Ocean from the Belfast shipyards to the rescue boats docking in New York with survivors.
Titanic Belfast captures all of this in a comprehensive blend of facts and emotions. The first thing that strikes you about the museum is the building. As you approach it, the silvery wave-like exterior shimmers slightly. The building’s four corners jut out like the bows of four ships – so accurate you can almost imagine Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet standing on each.
The significance of the height of the building is not immediately obvious but I learn that it’s 38 metres – exactly the same as the hull of the Titanic itself. It’s hard inside to get a sense of the scale of the boat but easier outside.
There are four levels to the museum and the top three have the galleries. There’s a standard route that visitors must take and it’s a chronological journey through history. There’s not much in the way of original items – for the obvious reason that a lot of the heritage is underwater. Instead, the exhibitions recreate the moments of time or moods through clever technological displays.
There are large video screens with actors having conversations between shipping company employees; a ride where the carriages travel through a riveting part (pun intended) of the construction of Titanic; a room with three sides of screens that take you through a clever tour of the ship’s interiors; a dark and sombre section with displays of distress calls during the sinking; and a theatrette with a movie of a diving expedition to the wreck.
A lost ship without people is just a sinking, not a tragedy, so throughout the museum experience are the stories of the passengers and crew who were on board. Their tales start innocently enough – why they were travelling, what their jobs were, for example.
Towards the end, though, the spectrum of human behaviour is revealed – those who lost their lives saving others, those who allegedly bribed the crew to leave the ship with almost empty lifeboats, those who never had a chance.
Belfast, as a city, doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of tourist attractions compared to many other urban hubs in the United Kingdom. But the Titanic Belfast experience is almost worth the trip alone. It’s a world-class exhibition about one of the most infamous events of the 20th century and the story is well told with just the right amount of emotion.
It’s a pragmatic approach to a tragedy that Belfast didn’t have to own – and could have been forgiven for not doing so, considering the amount of trouble it’s faced in its own right. But that would be denying the reality. The Titanic was this city’s baby and its birthplace has never forgotten it.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Tourism Ireland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.