Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finally visiting Titanic Belfast, twenty-seven months after it opened!

Oddly until today I’d never set foot in the exhibition halls of Titanic Belfast. More than two years after its opening in the centenary year of the ship’s launch, I’ve been up in the top floor conference venue more times that I can recollect, but had never made it as far as the displays downstairs.

Titanic Belfast certainly goes out of its way to set 1912 Belfast in context, with early galleries introducing visitors to the linen industry, the local political situation and the scale and technology behind Belfast’s ship-building tradition. It is clear that the museum and the city are celebrating more than one single boat.

The short themepark ride was a welcome chance to take the weight of our legs and flew us through the noisy shipyard. Later there was footage of the Titanic’s launch and detail about its intricate fit out.

The ship’s sinking is handled sensitively and is not sensational. Morse code transmissions and survivor statements provide glimpses into the horror of that April night. Where the exhibition is at its weakest is in telling the stories of the passengers and crew, whether lost in the accident or survivors.

Touch screens tucked into a corner offer access to the passenger and crew lists, allowing them to be sorted by age, gender, class/crew role, port of embarkation and whether they survived. However, detail about individual passengers was scant with a only few static displays dotted around the building’s galleries picking out particular stories. As a local visitor I wanted to be told about the men from off the Newtownards Road who didn’t return, to place their names and their stories in the local community.

And I really wanted to be overwhelmed by the human scale of the tragedy: maybe to have had to walk through a dark tunnel with the surnames being randomly projected at angles onto the walls and ceilings. Somehow I didn’t want to be allowed to so easily stand back and opt out of any emotion.

While there’s a gallery dedicated to the US and UK inquiries that followed the sinking and some audio-visual reconstructions of key exchanges, the information is high-level and there is no access to more detail. While even the hour-long Titanic Inquiry docudrama by the Hole in the Wall Gang doesn’t do full justice to the questions around SS Californian’s lack of curiosity about the nearby shipping firing distress rockets, there is little room on the walls of Titanic Belfast to explore these events without recourse to a local titanorak or a guided tour.

Perhaps hiring an audio guide unit would have filled in a lot more of this detail and told alternative stories? I’ve just discovered that the reason some visitors seemed glued to earpieces plugged into their iPhones and iPads was the £1.49 audio app for Titanic Belfast (available in six languages). It’s a shame this isn’t more prominently advertised throughout the building (which has seemed to have excellent wifi in every nook and cranny).

Titanic Belfast is certainly attracting tourists with a multitude of languages heard and overseas visitors seen walking around the building this afternoon. The staff crew are a major asset and the galleries seem to be organised so you’ll have to you’ll walk past a member of staff every half hour or so. They were all bubbly, approachable, but not pushy or nosey: a credit to the attraction and a major part of its success.

Like all museums and visitor attractions, some screens were dead and some lights/buttons were no longer working or missing (eg, the morse code keys in an early gallery). Attention to detail and rapid maintenance is often the sign of truly world-class venues.

Every now and again it was a delight to find a corner of a gallery or a balcony overlooking the atrium with no atmospheric sound effects in which to rest and get a break from the auditory turmoil.

Compared with other touristy attractions I’ve visited in Europe over recent summers, the Titanic Belfast souvenir shop doesn’t seem to be too overpriced. (It was good to see that there’s been no tea-bag price inflation since 2012 with the price of Thomson's Titanic tea steady at £2.99, not far above the supermarket retail price).

Overall, we spent two and a half hours wandering through the galleries. It was well worth a visit – particularly now that the centenary hype has calmed down. Maybe sometime I’ll return with a headset on – or a knowledgeable expert at my side – and soak in a little more of the story of which Belfast is no longer ashamed.


Anonymous said...

There is, or was three years ago, a hole in the wall hardware shop on Castle St in Ballycastle, that still had a poster of the RMS Olympic on it's wall. Probably an original as the shop, though it had most things, could almost have dated from that era. The shop's name escapes me at the moment having lived on the other side of the world for 30 years.
Am occasionally rung by someone who speaks broad Ulster Scots and sometimes have difficulty making appropriate responses now the language is less familiar to me. Love the Northern accents when I hear them though.

Anonymous said...

Visited the attraction for the first time today. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed with the content within the exhibition. I've watched a number of documentaries based on Titanic and didn't feel as though I learned anything over and above what I already knew. With no physical evidence of the boat to be seen, for me the highlight of the day was being able to witness and walk on the very slipways where Titanic and Olympic were built. A slightly confusing plaque explained the layout of the vast area, which was tastefully laid out to illustrate the scale of the vessel and also show the areas on the boat where loss of life would have been greatest. The nearby SS Nomadic, a smaller sister ship to Titanic, was also worth a look, with it's colours painted in the style of the iconic White Star Line fleet. All in all a good few hours worth of stuff to see, although for me it was the historic location, rather than the exhibition's content which I will most remember.