Sunday, April 1, 2012

Impressions of Titanic Belfast

Yesterday, East Belfast Diary could not have been anywhere else but at the opening of TitanicBelfast. Tickets for the first morning had been bought a long time ago and there was much anticipation in the EBD/ nickhereandnow household as we set off to catch the bus.

Atrium from the 4th floor
Ah, the bus. The start of a day that would have been much shorter had we taken the car. We decided not to because (i) we assumed we’d be charged a fortune to park it (ii) we were trying to be green (iii) it was a lovely day and we were looking forward to the walk from Queen’s Bridge. But we left home at a quarter to 11 and arrived to see Peter Robinson in the distance, cutting the ribbon, at mid-day. The experience makes the point that getting to Titanic Belfast requires some planning. There is now a bus from the city centre to the Belfast Metropolitan College (a lovely building, by the way, as is the stunning Public Records Office nearby) and one service that goes to the Science Park, but the latter does not run at weekends. There is also a train station, recently renamed Titanic Quarter, a short walk away. But if you want to combine a trip to Titanic Belfast with the Pump House and Thompson Graving Dock, at the weekend, then you need to be aware that there’s a lot of walking involved. Connectivity is still a problem for Titanic Quarter, but hopefully with both the College and Titanic Belfast operational, the transport options will improve – as will the options for coffee or lunch, which are currently dire.

A second aspect of planning the day involves Titanic Belfast itself. Entry charges are steep for Belfast (see their web site) but you get a lot for your money. It took us two and a half hours to get around it all, and we didn’t look closely at absolutely everything. Seats are provided (although not as many toilets as I would have expected), however again if you have people with you who have restricted mobility you need to think about how to approach the trip. We booked online and had our printout taken from us without anything being returned to show we had paid, so I think it would be difficult to leave the displays for a coffee and then return. Certainly I saw fewer children than expected, but now I would advise parents to think very carefully before taking younger children.

This all sounds very discouraging, so now for the good bits. The first has to be the building from the outside, which is absolutely stunning. It’s a shame that the final plans for the Titanic Quarter development include a bank of apartments between it and the river. I also think it’s too close to the old Harland and Wolff building. However it really is a ‘signature building’ and an asset for Belfast. Then, on entering the building, the atrium is amazing. Lovely metallic walls, a mosaic on the floor, lots of bustle, with cafe and gift shop prominent but not offensively so.

Within the exhibition, for me the most impressive features were the Shipyard Ride, which involves climbing into an open pod which moves around a model of a ship being built and talks about how it was done; and the approach to the sinking of the Titanic through presenting the texts of telegrams sent (example shown). The sinking was not sensationalised at all and, along with a planned memorial on the slipway outside, I don’t think anyone could feel that the story has been exploited. Finally, I enjoyed the account of the ship’s fitting out and the models of the cabins, and didn’t feel that the lack of original artefacts detracted from that at all. It was disappointing not to see the replica of the famous staircase, which everyone should be aware is not included in the exhibition but is only accessible to those who hire the Banqueting Suite.

However, inevitably there were some niggles. The first floor story of ‘Boomtown Belfast’ was a very traditional ‘museum’ type of approach with  a lot of information presented on display panels and not many videos. It reminded me of the old ‘Made in Belfast’ gallery in the Ulster Museum before its refurbishment. The problem I had with it was that the linear approach to presentation meant that on the one hand it was superficial and on the other, important aspects were omitted. The shipyards section focused on Harland and Wolff with a very small amount about Workman Clark and nothing on MacIlwaine and Lewis/ McColl, the shipyard with a connection to CS Lewis and also the one that built the first Belfast-made ship called ‘Titanic’ in 1888. Worse from my point of view was the small amount about trade unions, and about sectarianism in the shipyards. History is most definitely written by the winners.

We also encountered logistical problems with access to the Shipyard Ride, which I can’t see how they are going to solve. The pods take six people each and I think there are about ten of them. We estimated that the ride and disembarking took around 15 minutes. This would mean 240 people an hour, max. There was a long queue by the time we arrived, which was quite early, and my impression was that crowds will back up quite considerably.

My final niggle was that there’s just too much of it – by the time we got to the impressive cinema at the end, showing films of the submerged wreck, we’d both had enough and so didn’t give it the attention it deserved. Having said this, there is a need to include a bit more about Belfast between 1912 and 2012 other than a Harland and Wolff timeline and a panel about innovation in the city today.

So, full marks for the design and qualified praise for the content. Titanic Belfast is definitely worth a visit, but I suspect that it will become more of a tourist destination than a place for locals.


nick said...

I think rather a lot of significant information was unaccountably missing, presumably to avoid offending any visitors. Not just references to trade unions and sectarianism but also to the gruelling working conditions (both in the shipyards and on the Titanic), all the human errors that led to the sinking, the human errors that added to the number of victims, and the low-quality rivets used on the ship.

If the assumption is that visitors want a sanitised version of the sinking and not a warts-and-all version, I doubt if that's true.

Jenny Muir said...

Nick - You are right, although to be fair I think a lot of the human error elements are contested. I was aware that in the post I was doing what I do when I mark essays i.e. 'it's too long and this is what you have left out'. That's why videos can be really good, as they can convey a lot of information in a short period and if you're not interested in that particular aspect of the story then you can walk past them.

scott davidson said...

Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer,