A Titanic “experience”

The most popular tourist attraction in Belfast has, for the last year, been the curiously named ‘Titanic Experience’. What kind of an experience do visitors have? You may well wonder…

On my last trip to Belfast (11 months ago), we attempted to pay a visit but discovered that owing to its popularity, advance booking was essential. [Instead we explored the incredibly moving memorial to the ship in the dock where it was built.] This time, tickets were booked as soon as my flights were confirmed and, this afternoon, my mother and I spent nearly two hours thoroughly ‘experiencing’ the Titanic. [She’d visited a few months ago and was insistent that a visit was well worth it.]

I’m pleased to report that the experience element of the museum has nothing to do with the events of April 1912 – there is no water and no ice. In fact, the exhibition does an amazing job of not sensationalising the disaster that befell the Ship of Dreams. (Not that the disaster wasn’t a massive tragedy, just that it’s one aspect of the ship and the shipyard’s history.)

H&WHarland & Wolf gates

Instead, what you experience is what the process of shipbuilding was like in the early part of the twentieth century. That may not sound particularly riveting (!), but it really was. Ok, I’m a history geek and love nothing more than a good exploration of social history, but this was done brilliantly – not least the bit of the experience entitled ‘shipbuilding ride’. I’ll say no more, but it was funner than it sounds.

Part of the experience is the result of the building’s architecture – based on the ship’s design and the iceberg that sank it. At various points you emerge from the galleries into light spaces with windows looking out on to the docks. In one such moment, you can stand in precisely the place where Kate and Leo were on top of the world…

View from the bow of the TitanicView from the bow of the Titanic while it was being built.

Ship building transformed the city of Belfast and this is a fantastic testament to that element of its history. It’s also a moving memorial to one of the shipping revolution’s biggest disasters. There isn’t a minute by minute rundown of how the sinking occurred (surely most people know the score thanks to James Cameron?), instead, you see it as it was recorded by the wireless operators on board the Titanic and other ships in the area, including the Carpathia which ultimately came to the surviving passengers’ rescue. The rescue operation, inquest and stories of those lost are chronicled with sensitive detail.

Glimpses of the TitanicThe bow of the Titanic as it now looks under water.

Oh, and it’s only fair to warn you that the penultimate gallery (prior to a segment on the discovery of the wreck in 1985) is dedicated to depictions of the tragedy in the arts. Obviously, this section is accompanied by Celine Dion singing *that* song, meaning that thereafter, you will find yourself humming or even singing it to yourself. Admittedly, I should probably confess that I entered the building with a mental list of a musical Titanic medley, consisting of For Those in Peril on the Sea (sung in a service on board), Nearer my God to Thee (played as it sank) and *that* song. Until musical references crept into the later stages of the exhibition, I’d managed to stay quiet. Afterwards, it was an impossibility.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in the city with a few hours to spare – go. Only don’t try and attempt it with a school group. It’s booked out for school parties until 2015 apparently. That’s how good it is.

Titanic Experience & former H&W building

The Ship of Dreams

Ever since my parents moved to Belfast, something that’s bothered me has been the pride the city has in the fact that the Titanic was built in its docks. “It was alright when it left here” appears to be the mantra and over the last few years, with the ship’s centenary approaching, Titanic fervour has increased. Like anyone who was a teenage girl in 1998, I watched the movie multiple times and sobbed as Kate assured Leo that she’d never let go…and promptly did. The historical side of me is fascinated in it, but even I would have struggled with the amount of attention given by Belfast to the centenary back in April.

The centenary has provided its own legacy – a ‘Titanic Quarter’ has been developed, at the centre of which is the Titanic Experience – an awesome piece of architecture (easily spottable from a plane) commemorating the ship and the subsequent disaster. Surprise birthday guests Juliet & Doris were keen to go, so yesterday morning we heading there en route to the airport and their flight home. Sadly, we missed out on the official Experience as the bank holiday meant prior booking was needed, but we managed to create our own informative Titanic adventure.

Behind the building (whose inspiration I’ve yet to establish – is it based on the ship’s stern, or the iceberg that hit it?), is the dock in which the Titanic and sister ship the Olympic were built. Laid out before you are various hints of the scale of both the task and the loss of life. Rectangles of grass and decking alternate to illustrate the numbers of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class as well as crew who died – the grass marks the survivors. It’s rather damming to see the patches of grass grow wider as you travel up from crew, through steerage and to the 1st class section. Panels of glass have the victims’ names etched upon them (as well as the names of the 8 men who died during the Titanic’s construction). All very moving.

And then you have the gift shop… Rest assured, all kind of Titanic tat is available – from tea-towels, hats, pencils and notebooks to replica china. I’m sure every single bit of it was created in the best possible taste. Doris acquired a keyring incorporating a thermometer and compass (so she can check whether it’s cold enough for icebergs) and a notebook, so she was happy despite missing out on what’s apparently an excellent experience. Next time I’m due to come over, I’ll have to book a slot.

Oh, and there’s an interesting statue outside the front entrance to the building. Obviously, the inevitable happened:

Mim was initially doubtful that she’d manage this one – she did, and we then introduced Doris to the Statue Game. 
(Some people behind me were intrigued and had a go themselves afterwards.)