Belfast is very appreciative of its Titanic Museum that has brought tourists and employment to the city. Our bus driver proudly informed us that it was now the most visited attraction in the world. Initially sceptical about this, it was clear that there is some truth in his statement. So, only a Slow Travel experience if you can go in winter months or choose your time at the beginning or end of the day.
Photograph © Prioryman
The creators clearly wished this to be an interactive and sensory experience rather than a conventional museum, yet they have somehow managed to combine this aim with enough detailed knowledge and statistics to satisfy those who want a more comprehensive and technical understanding of the ship’s origins, design and engineering.
There is a huge variety of presentation here - text, photographs, film, virtual reality, change of dimension, movement, sound, oral and visual history. As you round a corner, yet another type of display awaits you - it’s modern, dramatic, stimulating. Inevitably, given the subject most people typically begin their journey in jovial mood, but by the end are subdued and solemn as the enormity of the tragedy that hit this illustrious ship is powerfully portrayed.
You are guided by a line on the floor - which begins as a rope then subtly changes to the logo of the White Star Line then to the Morse code as the story progresses.
The first galleries discuss the origins of industry in Belfast, mostly through text and pictures, showing how rapidly the city developed from a focus on linen to rope making, tobacco, whiskey and engineering to a concentration on ship building by the end of the 19th century. By 1900 the site that eventually became Harland and Wolff covered 80 acres and had a workforce of 10,000, building large and complex vessels and becoming the biggest shipyard in the world. The design process and the building of the enormous gantry are shown accompanied by the noises of hammering, riveting and the foreman’s shouted instructions as you near the immersive experience of the shipyard.
A lift, designed as a steel cage, takes visitors up to the “top” of the gantry where the height, only a quarter of the true structure, still seems dizzying. The dangers of construction are duly noted - the men used the phrase, “he’s away to the other yard” when someone died on the job. Visitors are then given a Shipyard Ride (you can be forgiven at this point for thinking you have somehow strayed into Disneyland by mistake) in a 4 person car which conveys you up, down and round the shipyard with some of the deafening noise and intense heat which the workers experienced as they laid the keel, framed, plated and riveted until the skeleton of the ship was completed. It’s a striking thought that the entire workforce from conception to completion must have been totally shocked and disbelieving when the news reached Belfast that their pride of the ocean had sunk.
A 4 minute virtual tour of the interior of the ship follows, and then there are reconstructions of various cabins along with details of the furnishings for the three classes of passengers. Violin and piano music accompany information about the band who continued to play as the ship went down. It is then possible to sit to “watch” the launch of the Titanic overlooking Victoria Channel where, in May 2011, 100,000 spectators came to witness the event. After nearly a year of interior fitting out she left Belfast to collect passengers at Southampton and Cherbourg before turning west across the Atlantic for New York.
The mood of the exhibition inevitably turns sombre as the drama of the ship’s sudden and disastrous end enfolds. There is graphic and chilling representation of the ship’s rapid descent into the water, accompanied by the text of the frantic SOS messages exchanged after the collision with the iceberg. The Carpathia came to the rescue but by the time she arrived the Titanic had disappeared.
You hear the voices of some of those who survived and see a replica of the lifeboats that kept them alive. Curiously there is little about the failed operation of the lifeboats nor about the various and intertwined explanations of why the ship sank so swiftly. The experience ends with a seat in the theatre to view the story of the discovery of the ship in 1985 - 690 kilometres south east of Newfoundland - and the subsequent undersea exploration.
Foremost in your mind as you leave the exhibition for the world outside are the human stories behind this vast “unsinkable” and luxurious ship, en route to hope and happiness in New York. Perhaps it qualifies as “dark tourism” to some extent, but it’s a carefully curated and thoughtful presentation worth two hours of your time.
Additional photographs © The Titanic Museum
Visiting The Titanic Experience
How to get there
Titanic Belfast, 1 Olympic Way, Queen’s Road, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, BT3 9EP
By car: parking is available in a nearby underground car park.
By air: There are buses and taxis available at both Belfast City Airport and the Belfast International Airport.
By train: from Belfast City Centre to the Titanic Quarter Station, followed by a signposted 15 minute walk.
By bus: the purple Glider departs every 30 minutes for Belfast City Centre.
Opening times: 9am - 4.30pm
Refreshments available at two cafes on site.
Book your ticket with free cancellation here