The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Titanic Belfast - a biased review

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Belfast. I fell in love with the city (even in the rain) and I hope to visit again. One of the reasons behind the trip was to visit the new 'visitor attraction' Titanic Belfast. Technically, they do not call it a museum, but since my definition of a museum is a place that displays history and exhibits objects, I believe this falls under that category. Others may disagree.

I will begin by saying that I am biased. I found last month, around the anniversary, that so many people were simply tired of hearing about the Titanic. Tired of the media and hoopla, and everything. Which I think is quite unfortunate. It was a significant event, and not just because so many people lost their lives because of the hubris of a few men, but rather because of the changes that the disaster made to the industry of luxury cruise travel. The disaster cost a great many lives, but it may well have saved countless more. So I don't truly understand why people seem to dislike the idea of an anniversary so much. It wasn't a celebration; any more than the anniversary of WWI or II is. So the commemorations that surrounded the event should be treated with that in mind.

And so, we have Titanic Belfast. The largest (and certainly the most expensive) commemoration to date for the disaster of April 15th 1912. They were so many ways they could have done it wrong. I was thrilled to see they did it almost completely right.

By which I really mean, I think they did it about as right as they could have, considering you can't please everyone. The price tag for the whole endeavour was roughly £100 million. I bet every museum in the world would like that much! They must have used every single pence of it to.

It was the small details that, I think, really made the experience. Everywhere you look a great deal of thought went into design, materials, decor, etc. There isn't a single part of the museum that brings to mind the ship, except for the architecture outside (see photo above). In fact, the design feels much more like a homage to the Belfast docks than to the grand ships they built. The height of the structure is the same height as Titanic. The square footage is the same as well. The building materials are mostly of steel and glass, though in the galleries it never detracts from what's on  the walls. The central lobby area, where you first enter on the ground floor, contains the only 'tourist' bits. The things they had to put in to make money and cater to the public.

The picture on the right is a view from the top floor down to the central space. The design on the floor is a compass. The metal wall to the left makes a dramatic statement. The lights reflect on it, but so too does sun coming through the windows. It feels modern, but also very  much representative of the ship building industry, rather than the White Star Line ships themselves. The central space also gave a very open atmosphere that the visitor frequently passes through between galleries. A glimpse here, a window to the docks there. It also serves as a resting space with benches so that people can sit down, talk, discuss, etc.
This is the most commercial part of the experience. However, despite the fact they have a store, there's no really cheap museum gimmicks here. No replica ships or iceberg-shaped ice cube makers. There is a series of expensive items pertaining to N. Ireland and Belfast, a large range of books, t-shirts that represent the museum and not the ship, and some other memorabilia, again to the museum and not the Titanic. I think, in that, they did it right. You can't by stuff about the disaster or even really the anniversary. It's all about Titanic Belfast instead.

It's timed entry. Thankfully. However, since the place only opened about six weeks ago, it's still selling out for each time slot (every 20 minutes). Which means, it's still crowded, despite the timed entry. As well, I managed to hit it 20 minutes after a very large conference group had come in, and they were on some sort of treasure hunt type thing, so they were lingering in the early galleries more than the traffic flow intended. After Gallery 3, however, it was much better. Without the group, I think it would have been okay. One of the first things I noticed was how well prepared the staff were. They knew exactly what they were doing, there was always someone there to assist anyone with mobility challenges (lifts everywhere, as well as the escalator in the lobby), and what's more, they were very good at answering questions, directing visitors with a smile. Clearly they enjoy their jobs. Lucky them!

The museum starts on the 1st Floor, up the main escalator. The galleries are in order; once you leave a gallery it's hard to return because of traffic flow. Once in a gallery, the way you wander is mostly up to you, though there is a 'timeline' in the information. However, it would still make sense if you viewed it 'backwards' I think. The first gallery is Boomtown Belfast. It's mostly done through text panels and wall projection videos and pictures. It tells the story of Belfast in the last 19th century, when ship building became such an important industry to the city. The next gallery, which fits with the first quite well and is similarly designed is on the top floor, up a dedicated lift that you are directed to. It is the Arrol Gantry gallery and tells the story of how the Titanic (and her sister ships) were built, mostly through the eyes of the dock. There is a 'ride' of sorts, like a Jorvik Viking Centre, that lasts for about 3 minutes and takes groups of 6  visitors through a time line of how the hull of the ships were constructed using commentary, voice clips and pictures, as well as a recreation of the shipyard.

On to Gallery 3: The Launch. This is the smallest gallery, but it tells the story of the excitement in Belfast surrounding the launch of the Titanic, and shows a video clip of the launch with the backdrop of floor to ceiling windows that look out over the shipyard the Titanic launched from. A nice use of architecture to support the gallery space, if ever I saw one!

Part of Gallery 2, this floor shows a constantly rotating projection of the blueprints of the Titanic.







The image below shops the lift shaft to Gallery 2: the Arrol Gantry


Gallery 4 gets into the more detailed aspects of the actual Titanic ship, with The Fit-Out. A luxuriously designed gallery, it describes the different industries that came together to actually out-fit the interior of the ship, from carpeting to wood work to the china patterns. There is a central glassed-in recreation of a first class cabin, a second and a third, so there is lots of room to be able to view the galleries. The interactives here are used  to amazing affect, with projections of 'passengers' in their staterooms going about their business. More than that is the fly-through room. A 3-sided projection screen that gives a vertical fly-through of the ship from the engine room to the bridge (taking in the grand staircase of course). I was astounded by this. It must be some of the latest technology available and I think it's owed to a company in California, last I heard. There is no hint that you are watching a computer generated video. It looks, for all the world, like the Titanic has been built, cut in half, and you are riding an elevator through the floors from bottom to top. Amazing!

Next up is the story of the Maiden Voyage. This is the second smallest gallery and details specific members of the crew and passengers (those we have a great deal of information about), how they came to be on the ship, which becomes important as their stories continue through the next gallery about the sinking, giving a personal feel to the museum.

It is here I should point out one of the aspects I liked most about this place. There are no artifacts from the Titanic. There are many documents from the Harland & Wolff archives, a few artifacts from the other ships that were kept, many, many pictures taken, but no artifacts that were 'stolen' from the wreck, since such has been illegal since it was first discovered in 1985. Some may not agree with that opinion, but I think exhibiting illegally acquired artifacts goes against every museum's charter in the world. Instead, the sinking is told through text panels, quotes, and architecture of the space. It is small, enclosed, and evokes an emotional response in the visitor without really having to try.

The picture on the right shows the first class cabin with projected passengers.

The left shows her under construction, the right is the finished model.


Gallery 7: The Aftermath, is downstairs and focuses on the often conflicting stories that emerged when the survivors reached America. It deals with how the media saw the event (both the good articles and the bad), and especially the investigations that were prompted by both the US and UK into the events and the cause. There are interactives here (like in many of the galleries, there are 3 or 4 of the same interactive, to allow a larger number of visitors to use them at the same time) which allow you to see the names of the dead, the percentages of each class that survived; how many woman, children, men, staff, etc. in nearly any combination. I think it puts it into perspective in a way most people haven't seen.


Picture showing the interactive screen of the roll of the dead.



Also next door in Gallery 8 is a very small section on the Myths and Legends of the disaster. You move from a dark space, that has continued from Gallery 6, into a bright space with windows overlooking the dock area (specifically the Samson and Goliath cranes). Here, all of the movies/tv shows/etc. are discussion in brief videos, showing the different ways the sinking has been portrayed over the last 80 odd years. The way this gallery is designed is such that you don't need to stop. There is a path that walks through it and another path that skirts it to the viewing windows. It's a nice choice and gives a sense of understanding to those that may be (through family) more affected by the disaster than the regular visitor. They don't need to see what the media has done with it over the years. There is also a display case with 'memorabilia' from the movies, etc. The sort of cheap stuff they don't sell downstairs at the shop. Again, this is easily avoided if desired.

Around the corner is the beginning of the rest of the tale, moving from the past to the present and the discovery of the shipwreck. A video of an interview Robert Ballard did after he found the wreck in 1985 is a useful introduction. Over the last 15 years, I think much of the public has concluded that James Cameron found the wreck. It's nice to have the reminder of all the early expeditions and video/photos from Ballard. Two sets of double doors lead you into an IMAX theatre. It's a bit smaller than normal, but set out the same way, and the screen must be at least 25 ft high. It is called the Titanic Beneath Theatre, and shows a rather long (I didn't stay for the whole thing, so not sure how long it actually is!) video of continuous underwater footage taken of the wreck with a commentary that tells the viewers what they are looking at (which is often hard to tell). It is done in the vein of a recreation of the original finding, so the commentary comes across as very 'Look at that! Look at that! Can you believe it?' That bugged me a bit, but it does make sense with the previous video of Ballard's first interview. The footage, however, is amazing. From there a lift or stairs leads you down to the lower floor of the IMAX, which is not obvious from above. Here there are ten interactive tables that allow you to explore the wreck at your own pace, clicking on things of interest that appear out of the dark. Even more impressive is the continuous fly-over that covers the floor in front of the IMAX screen. With the video above, and commentary still clear, you stand on a glass floor and watch the wreck swim passed below you, from stern across the ocean floor to the bow.

Passing over the bow of the Titanic.

When you leave this area there is a small section with the actual footage from the first expedition and a small explanation of how the wreck was discovered. From there, you spill out into the bright lobby (well, bright when the sun is out) where you are issued with a date stamped collectors ticket, a friendly staff member, and the loos! [There are many toilets dotted around the galleries, and very easy to find.] From there, it's an escalator ride back to the lobby floor and a stop at the shop, the cafe, or the Bistro 401 restaurant which offers Irish style food.

Outside you can walk the courtyard out to the water and look down the canal through the dock area. The stonework of the courtyard is an exact footprint replica of the Titanic, showing the top deck (lifeboats, smoke stacks, bridge). The vast area, ending at the bow (the museum) really puts the sheer size into perspective. This ship was huge, the museum massively tall even a 1000ft away. A masterpiece. Even 2.5 miles down in pieces on the ocean floor, she is still a masterpiece today.

The lifeboats are clearly visible here, with downtown Belfast in the background.


I hope you can see why I feel this is the best done museum I've been in. And, even more, I hope you go an visit it to decide for yourself!


[All photos by the author. Please don't reuse.]

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