The building from behind. In the foreground; two of the markers showing where gantries once stood
It’s the turn of the 20th century, Belfast is in the midst of an industrial and economic boom; the docks leads the way as the city thrives on the production of linen, the making of rope and, most importantly, shipbuilding. The world renowned shipbuilders at Harland and Wolff embark on an ambitious project of constructing a new gargantuan class of ships the likes of which the world has never seen before. Little did they know that it would end in one of the deadliest and most well-known civilian naval disasters in history.
On 15th April 1912, the titanic struck an iceberg, sank and in the process cemented its place in both the history books and popular culture. The centre itself is testament to this iconic status with its very walls stylized to the shape and height of the Titanic’s bow while inside it holds her mostly untold story. This isn’t the story of the Dreamliner which was lost to the sea but of the men, women and children, who imagined, built and served on the pride of Belfast.
An example of early ship building.
The exhibition takes us on a journey through this ship’s incredible life story; from her early beginnings to her fateful maiden voyage and beyond. Starting with the economic and industrial advancement of Belfast at the time and how it solidified itself as the capital of quality ship building. Immerse yourself in everyday life at the time as period scenes surround you populated by silhouettes going about their business with displays of items commonly seen in Victorian Belfast.
Move on from the streets to meet the men behind the conceptualisation and the funding for the world’s grandest transatlantic passenger ship. See within the Harland & Wolff drawing offices as some of the world’s greatest nautical minds visualised the Titanic for the first time. This area features many illustrations, original documents, scale models and an interactive floor plan.
The exhibition takes a turn towards the perilous task of construction and shows the hazards facing late-Victorian era shipbuilders as they perform a number of dangerous and uncomfortable tasks like riveting her hull over 3 million times. See a scaled down version of just one of the 31 gantries (still big enough to help support the building), hear about what little health and safety existed at the time and take a journey through the Harland and Wolff shipyards on a cablecar.
A furnance accompanies black and white footage of shipbuilding.
After her 1911 launch and move to dry docks, she was ready for the less arduous task of fitting out the three different classes and all the miscellaneous areas to make the ship inhabitable. Be it bedrooms, lounges, squash courts, post offices or kitchens; each were fitted out based on class or function and recreations of some of these can be seen in the exhibition. Here you’ll see the dramatic difference between what it would have been like to sail as a first class passenger compared with cramped conditions of the other classes on board.
In April 1912 she made her maiden voyage, leaving Belfast for Southampton and onwards to Cherbourg and Queenstown (Cobh) before tackling the Atlantic bound for New York. The exhibition features pictures showing the ship being sent off by large crowds and details what else she was carrying in supplies for the journey or as trade to the States.
But, of course, she never made it to her final destination. As you step into the area of the exhibition dealing with the sinking of this great ship, S.O.S. messages stream across the walls and while Morse code fills your ears. Recreations of the sinking of the Titanic adorn the walls with eye witness accounts, newspaper headlines, tales of heroic acts which saved lives and other information regarding the Titanic’s final moments. Capturing the tragedy of the event, a life boat, similar to those onboard, sits unused near interactive boards where you can look up specific passengers and statistics from the sinking; maybe you'll find an ill fated ancestor or a lucky relation.
A lifeboat with a recreation of a survivor's account.
We also go beyond the immediate aftermath to the ship's legacy, its presence in popular culture and the fictionalisation of the ship’s story. From the James Cameron 1997 feature film to others, TV series, books, poems and much more; the affect the Titanic’s sinking had on the people of the time and would go on to have on future generations. Use interactive screens here to explore the myths and legends of the Titanic.
The exhibition finishes at the end, after over 100 years the Titanic remains 12,000 feet beneath the waves. See inside some of the expeditions which have visited the site and brought back artefacts and incredible footage. This same footage is displayed on an imax sized screen which sets the tone for this entire area as the sounds of the deep accompany a number of underwater exploration items which are on display.
The Titanic Belfast is a fantastic exhibition with so much information and entertainment on offer. There is so much information here that you could visit 100 times and still come back and discover something new. If you are coming to Belfast, on a self-catered holiday or otherwise, the Titanic Belfast is a must but be sure to set aside plenty of time for your visit as you could end up there for hours! Neither this article nor it's images can do the Titanic Belfast justice; you'll just have to see for yourself.
Words & Images by John Temke.