The edifice sat in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter like an alien spacecraft disguised as a metallic striated butterfly from a sci-fi movie. It wasn’t until we were directly below the imposing building that we realised it looked like the hull of a ship. “Three ships actually,” said Alex McGeevy, Media Relations Executive, as he whisked us to Level 6 of Titanic Belfast.
Overlooking the waters of Belfast Lough at the mouth of River Lagan, Alex pointed out two giant outlines on the slipway where the Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, were built side by side at the historic Harland & Wolff ship building yard. Few know that the Titanic was one of three identical ships built for White Star Line — The Beloved (Olympic), The Damned (Titanic) and The Forgotten (Brittanic).
As Northern Ireland’s largest ever tourism project, the £97m Titanic Belfast is a unique public-private partnership conceived over 10 years by Eric Kuhne of Civic Arts, London. His design philosophy was to ‘restore the storytelling quality of architecture’. And it manages to stay true to its mission. Laden with symbolism, the experiential museum was unlike any other we had visited.
Besides the similarity to the ship’s bows, the iconic building was 90 ft, the exact height of the ship from keel to hull. Like the Titanic, it took three years to build.
The wooden benches, akin to dots and dashes, represented the Titanic’s distress signal in Morse code. A patchwork of tiles fanning around them displayed the largest map of northern hemisphere in Europe. Metal strips outlined the journey, an ‘x’ marked the place where the ship sank, while a dotted line indicated the intended journey to New York.
A true replica
Similar to the ship’s nine decks (A-G), the nine galleries across four floors allowed visitors to travel through time to Edwardian ‘Boomtown Belfast’. The first gallery documented the city’s evolution as Linenopolis, the largest linen producer in the world.
Shadows of figures in period costumes flitted about black and white archival shots of the old town and an audio feed added the ambience. The Shipyard told the stories of the workers who built her, recreating the industrial crash and clang of the world’s largest shipyard.
A lift transported us to another level, mirroring the 226-feet-high crane (the highest at its time) used by workers.
A Dark Ride Track gave us a simulated walkthrough of the shipyard. A voice-over reported how there were 254 accidents recorded during the construction; most fell off the scaffolding due to imbalance triggered by the constant din. Despite the risks, there were only eight deaths on the job, which locals referred to as “he’s away to the other yard”.
As the Titanic was launched from the slipway on May 31, 1911, nearly 1,00,000 people paid a shilling each to witness the historic launch. The ship took 62 seconds to slide down the ways (wooden platforms) into the water amidst huge cheering. Women waved their handkerchiefs and workmen flung their caps in the air. Press reports mentioned that ‘She took to the water as though she were eager for the baptism’.
For the next 10 months, the ship was fitted out at the 900-feet-long Thomson Dock & Pump House in all the finery of a floating palace and a five star hotel. The first class lounge resembled the palace of Versailles, the cooling room of the Turkish Bath looked like a Sultan’s palace while the ‘gents only’ smoking room was like a posh Gentleman’s Club in London, furnished with stained glass windows and leather chairs.
The first class suites spelt luxury with wood panelled walls, carpeted floors and period furniture. A carelessly thrown hat and discarded garments on the door hook, the recreated sets looked so real, as if someone would walk in to sip a cup of tea on a Queen Anne chair. The ship had the world’s first on-board pool, squash courts and gymnasium, but it was the grand staircase capped by a glass dome and a massive chandelier that stole the show.
Bringing back memories
We were ushered into a large hall of Titanic Belfast where the famous staircase had been recreated. This was the city’s largest conference space. In a blink we could recapture the big screen romance of Rose descending the regal stairway as a smitten Jack waited to kiss her hand.
It was our luck that in another section costumes of Kate Winslet, Leonardo Di Caprio and crew uniforms from James Cameron’s 1997 film were on display. Props like the steering wheel and engine order telegraph from Fox Studios marked the film’s recent release on BluRay and 3D.
The final touches were added to the ship at Southampton Dock and a decadent supply of provisions was loaded. After ports of call at Cherbourg and Queenstown for passengers and mail, the Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage that would immortalise ‘Transatlantic luxury travel’.
On Sunday, April 14, 1912, at 11.40pm, a weird scraping sound announced the lethal brush with the iceberg and Titanic’s glory turned into tragedy. The final exchange of messages between the two sister ships and tales of courage were poignant moments in the Titanic’s final moments, before she sank to the depths of the sea.
From the sinking and the aftermath to the myths and legends surrounding the ship, the final galleries lent a sombre mood to the museum, almost dissecting the anatomy of pain.
On a lower level, the Immersive Theatre explored Titanic’s final resting place, discovered by Dr Robert Ballard in 1985. Haunting underwater images glided along the glass floor below our feet in an eerie walk-through that mapped out the wreck and relics scattered on the ocean floor.
Stories of millionaires to menial workers, whose destinies were strangely entwined, had been documented. Detailed lists of those who perished and those who were saved included a family of four Indians who had miraculously survived.
Though some blame the rivets or the airtight compartments, many believe the ship was ill-fated as there was no bottle broken on the hull or proper christening done. After all, it was named after the Titans, a race of giants who fought against the Greek gods led by Zeus, and lost!
We stepped out of the dark hall into the bright foyer. As if released from a spell, visitors dashed to the Titanic shop to pick up signature collectibles.
Since it opened on March 31, 2012 to mark the centenary year, Titanic Belfast has clocked over half a million visitors with its unique experience blending history, art and technology. With plans to develop the H&W drawing office and Pump House, Belfast is slowly reclaiming the legacy of the most famous ship since Noah’s Ark. Welcome aboard for a journey that will never be forgotten.