There’s a new kid on the block in Belfast. You can’t miss it if you wander into the docklands area known as the Titanic Quarter; it dominates the land and seascape with its stark height and design, and its surface pushes the sunlight back into the sky. But what is it? And is it worth a visit? As part of our Titanic Season we called in at what some locals call ‘The Berg’ to find out…
Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction
Titanic Belfast is an edgy new building at the edge of a city that has lived through some troubled times. It stands, new but sure of itself, in a setting that’s rich with new regeneration money and historic and modern attractions. Here, in the Titanic Quarter you can find the dry dock where Titanic was fitted out. You can stumble across a film studio that recently hosted the filming of Game of Thrones. You can marvel at the size of the yellow Harland and Wolff gantry cranes; historic monuments that make the city instantly recognisable.
More than a museum
Although the Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction has been open for a couple of weeks, it is already holding its own in the quarter that takes the name of the infamous ship. As well as enhancing the skyline, it ticks all sorts of boxes for the city. It celebrates the glory of Titanic, a classic sailing vessel and modern icon that was built and kitted out here. It reminds us of the city’s great maritime, shipbuilding and craft heritage. It commemorates the lives and deaths of those who built, sailed or went down with her a century ago. It regenerates and re-brands a city. It brings visitors in. (Visitor numbers are said to be up 20% already.) It has an ethereal, almost other wordly look about it; you can’t fail to shiver as you catch a glimpse of structure that combines iconic ship and giant iceberg. But as a museum, is Titanic Belfast any good?
An attraction, an experience and a family day out…
Sorry, did I just call it a museum? My mistake. Those connected with it prefer you to use the terms ‘visitor experience,’ or ‘visitor attraction.’ It’s certainly an experience. Standing at the top of the Arrol gantry in the ‘shipbuilding yard,’ I feel quite dizzy as I looking down on the joiners tools and planks 200 ft below and assess how dangerous it would have been to be working on the ship in the early 1900’s. (17 people died in the construction of Titanic and her sister ship Olympic.)
And it’s certainly an ‘attraction’; the building is packed out and the queues for the shipbuilding ride are taking forever, despite the fact that the ride ultimately goes nowhere and isn’t all that thrilling. But despite that, the world’s biggest Titanic experience is still a museum at heart; a vast and imaginative one, filled with more knowledge that you can possibly cram into an afternoon.
It’s a Titanorak’s paradise. And if you’ve a head for numbers as well as for heights, you will revel in the detail. I’m no stat queen but even I walk away with loads of numbers reeling around in my brain. As a mother I’m horrified by the idea of having to lay out 10,000 cloths, 18,000 sheets and 45,000 napkins, and am even more put off when I discover there’s no on board washing machine to launder them. I think about the 404 light bulbs in the dining saloon burning brightly until a few moments before the ship went down, and consider how distressing it must have been to be in a life boat and watch the lights go out. I imagine the complexity of organising 3,000 men to fit out a boat that had to be segregated for first, second and third class passengers yet allow crew to wander freely. I think about the 2,600 estimated shipwrecks in maritime history, the lives that were lost and the amount of soup tureens that must be sitting on the ocean bed.
And as the smart ship grew in stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too.”
The Titanic story is ultimately about good and evil. About man meets iceberg. About life and death. And that’s why we like it. But the thing is we all know the story. So this museum, (sorry visitor attraction) has to deliver more than a well worn tale and an ancient history. It has to make it relevant to us now. The verdict of our family is that it has a good go at making us connect with the disaster.
We can walk over glass panels while underneath high definition footage from the wreck plays on a loop. We can ride around the shipyard, with all the sights, sounds and smells of the welders’ tools. We can stand at the head of the slipway where she was launched, and see films that take us up through the ceiling of each elegant room, enjoying the view from first class. It’s a really impressive, intelligent, highly visual experience set across nine different galleries.
Designed to remind us of boat and berg
On a boat trip later, I learn from a guide that the designer wanted the building to resemble the bows of the Titanic, but he also studied icicles under a microscope to make the panelled effect mirror the surface of the iceberg. And throughout the visitor attraction, planners and designers have successfully combined the huge scale of the Titanic with an eye for detail. They help us imagine we are in the shipyard, observing the back-breaking work of the rivet squads of men and young boys. They raise questions about who we are and how we behave in times of high stress. And they show us how nature can wipe us out with one small blow from a bigger version of the ice cubes that we put in our drinks. But during our visit, we never quite feel like we’re there, on the ship, that night, at that moment in maritime history.
Perhaps it’s too comfortable. I never felt the extreme cold of the wind, the icy fingers of death at my heels or the splash of water under foot or on my face; maybe the designers could think about creating a more sensory experience. Perhaps it’s too crowded; with the museum working at capacity (it’s currently sold out) I never got the sense of being adrift, all alone in the blackness of the sea. Or perhaps it’s too familiar and I’ve watched too many Hollywood films on the subject for it to really be fresh or mind-blowing. No matter how big their budget, the designers here never had access to the level of graphics and funding James Cameron had.
This boat will float
Having said all that, I really enjoyed it, and it even managed to hold the attention of our six year who can tear through a museum in a matter of minutes. Titanic Belfast is a good Titanic education and a good value family attraction. It may seem a bit of a gamble, to invest that much money into celebrating a ship that’s only famous because it crashed and drowned, and a disaster that we only remember because it’s so shocking. But in my opinion, this gamble will pay off and I think this Titanic is sure to float.
Titanic Belfast is situated in Belfast Titanic Quarter, a short walk from the city centre. The attraction is open all year round. For opening hours check the website at www.titanicbelfast.com. Tickets can be purchased online at discounted rates or at the attraction, subject to availability. Tickets are based on time ticketed slots and an average visit takes 2-3 hours. Standard admission is £13.50 for adult, £6.75 per child with a family ticket (2 adults + 2 children) at £34.00.
This post is part of our Tales of Titanic Cities Tour.
We’ visited Liverpool and Belfast to find out more about how the two cities are connected to Titanic, joined in the Titanic Festival and tried to figure out what the story of the Titanic has to teach us one hundred years on.
Read these other posts from our Titanic Season.
- We’re more a steerage sort of family
- Kids make headlines at the Merseyside Maritime Museum
- She was alright leaving here – World’s only Titanic Boat Tour
- Marking the moment – Tiitanic hits an Iceberg
- Ten lessons from a sinking ship – Titanic sinks – marking the moment
- Inside the Berg – The Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction
- That’s the problem with the wireless generation
- 10 ideas for family craic in Belfast city break
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Titanic Belfast, GoToBelfast, Stena Line UK, Malone Lodge Hotel and Apartments and the Lagan Boat Company for their support which has enabled us to bring you this story.