2014 – Day Thirty Five

Titanic! One of the main reasons for coming to Belfast (well at least for me anyway) was to see the birthplace of the Titanic.

Luckily for me, with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s launch, the government has (…ahem) “pushed the boat” out in commemoration. They have built a £97M interactive exhibit in the Titanic Quarter, the heart of Belfast’s ship building industry.

The building is quite spectacular: four stories high, and comprised of four ships bows. The outside is clad in aluminium, and carved in such a way that it suggests movement through water. It’s really well designed and quite beautiful to look at.

The display is made up of nine exhibitions:

Gallery 1: Boomtown Belfast, describing how Belfast boomed following the famine with people streaming into the city to find work. The key industries at the time were ship building and linen production. We find out that linen is made from flax plants. I never
knew that – I thought it was a finer version of cotton.

Gallery 2: The Arrol Gantry and Shipyard Ride, taking us into the heart of shipbuilding, showing how the frame was made, the steel panels and the millions of rivets that held together the hull. The ride takes us through life size models and accompanying video. It’s pretty realistic. Most fascinating is the footage of riveting – a boy heats the rivets to red hot, another passes it to two men, who take turns beating the rivet into place. They work so quickly that you can barely see in between each hammer strike. Riveters were paid by
rivet, and the best pairs were a combination of a right handed and a left handed man. I would have found the speed at which they lay their blows hard to believe if I had not seen it with my own eyes. It’s an extraordinary bit of teamwork.

Gallery 3: The Launch. We learn that the Titanic was launched essentially complete but not fitted out – all of the fit out was completed at sea. We see footage of the actual launch – amazing how effortlessly she slipped into the sea given her size. We see how Belfast celebrated the launch – over 100,000 people bought tickets to see it.

Gallery 4: The Fit Out. We see life size, perfect replicas of a first class cabin, a second class cabin and a third class, or steerage cabin. The standard in each of the cabins was of a much higher standard than any other ship at the time. The first class cabins were of a higher standard than the top hotels of the day. They really are very luxurious with four poster beds, chaise lounges, arm chairs, ornate heaters and private bathrooms. Steerage on the other hand only had 2 bathrooms for all the passengers! We also see a 3D simulation film starting from the ships engine room, up through each level’s common areas and dining rooms, right up the bridge where the captain sits. Seeing this, it’s extraordinary how accurate James Cameron’s Titanic film was.

Gallery 5: The Maiden Voyage. We hear recordings and read transcripts from the passengers in each of the travelling classes, and the ship’s staff. It seems that everyone was either sailing to a new life, on the trip of a lifetime as a present, or simply on the best and brightest of the time. The ship was full of hopes and dreams. We also hear the stories of people who just missed the launch – two firemen who were at the pub, got drunk and missed it, a lay priest whose permission to travel was withdrawn at the last moment, a man who swapped with a friend, because a baby came earlier than expected. The passengers were full of excitement, to be on the maiden voyage, to start a new life abroad.

Gallery 6: The Sinking. At 23:40 on 14 April 1912, the Titanic struck ice and did not complete her journey. We see a dramatisation of the sinking, and most poignantly, we see the transcripts of her desperate calls for help – from the first hint of trouble to the last as
power is lost. It’s very moving – it makes me cry to read the desperation in those messages. We see pictures of the survivors on the Carpathia and her passengers attempting to comfort them. We hear first hand narrations of what happened as the ship went down and how terrified and sometimes, how heroic, people were. We read how Mr Guggenheim, having secured his young pregnant bride on a life boat, is said to have stated that “we are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down as gentlemen”. We read about Margaret Brown’s heroic actions on the night and afterwards in support of the survivors – she went on to be immortalised in film by Debbie Reynolds as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. We hear how the third class passengers didn’t even get warning that there was a problem. 712 people were saved, 1,517 lost their lives. Only
306 bodies were recovered. The lifeboats had capacity for 1,178 people.

Gallery 7: The Aftermath. As word of the disaster spread, confusion reigned. Early reports ranged from all passengers surviving, to disaster being narrowly averted. There was no internet, no computers, and records of passengers took a while to be released. Some people didn’t know the fate of loved ones for weeks. We also hear interviews from the inquiry that followed and the outcome of the inquiry. A number of improvements were enacted from what was learnt, from the number of lifeboats that should be on board, how ice warnings should be treated and speed of travel through ice. Speed was not determined to be a factor, but it was suggested that having the shipping company’s chairperson on board may have encouraged it. Reports on the behaviour of the ship’s captain were mixed. In the end, some practices were changed, but change came too late for those on the Titanic.

Gallery 8: Myths and Legends. An interactive display of the many films, series, documentaries and legends that Titanic has spawned. The first of which was made very shortly following the disaster, starring one of the survivors who was an actress, up to James Cameron’s Titanic. The ship and disaster has captured the imagination through the decades and judging by today’s crowd, that fascination won’t be abating anytime soon.

Gallery 9: Titanic Beneath. We see a mini IMAX view of Titanic under the sea following Professor Ballard’s discover of her in 1985. The film shows the ship’s bow, her broken funnels, the boilers, the remnants of a first class cabin – a broken heater, and sadly, women’s shoes and hair combs strewn on the sea floor. Under the screen is a glass floor, under which is another film playing, with a bird’s (fish) eye view of the wreck from bow to the break in her middle. You could be scuba diving over it, if it were not some 12,000 metres deep.

The whole experience has been moving, and very well done.

Outside of the building, in front of the ships slipway are two massive blocks of concrete encased in glass upon which is etched the names of those who lost their lives on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. It’s a powerful and moving tribute.

I’m so pleased we came to see the exhibition. The Titanic has fascinated me as for as long as I can remember.