Chapple, R. M. 2012 'Titanic Experience Belfast: Review'. blogspot post
Titanic Experience Belfast: Review Originally posted online on May 22nd 2012 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/titanic-experience-belfast-review.html)One of the things that you’re always told about the act of writing is, before you sit downto do it, know what you’re going to say. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel or ascholarly paper that you are engaged in, this is good advice. Unfortunately, I recentlytook this advice a little too far.Let me explain.Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the construction of the Titanic Experiencebuilding in Belfast. This ultra-modern structure was designed by Civic Arts/Eric R.Kuhne & Associates to emulate or recreate four ships prows. The building itself isfinished in a textured metal skin that is intended to further reinforce the connection tothe original ships built on the site, while simultaneously giving the impression of lightplaying over moving water. At six stories tall, it may not be a massive addition to theBelfast skyline, but it certainly cuts a dash. From the first time I saw an artist’srendering of what it would look like, I have known that I would simply adore thisbuilding. As I have seen it rise from the ground, I have become more and more certainin this opinion. However, as I also began to hear reports of what would be inside thebuilding I was filled with a growing sense of dread. First of all, there were to be nooriginal artefacts from the wreck. Nor was there to be a focus on presentingcontemporary or related items. I heard a sound bite on the news from some public
relations bod, proudly proclaiming that ‘this isn’t going to be a museum, it’s going to bean ‘experience’’ (or words to that effect). For-crying-out-loud, there were even plans tohave a rollercoaster type ride in this thing! Based on the evidence available to me, I waseasily able to deduce that this was going to be tasteless, exploitative, and of no realworth. Not long after it opened I had a wonderful idea. I would write a review of the‘experience’ for this blog. I had some pretty firm ideas as to what I was going to say:fantastic building, pity it’s housing such a tawdry display – that kind of thing. It was notgoing to be an overwhelmingly positive review.With these expectations firmly in mind, I took my two sons (ages 5 and 3) there on aquiet Thursday afternoon a little while ago. Over the last year in particular, I’ve watchedthis building take shape, and I’ve been entranced – it is just such a thing of beauty. I’veseen it from the train, from the windows of the Odyssey complex; I’ve even seen itfrom Belfast Metropolitan College Titanic Campus (where I’m currently a part-timestudent). But I’d not been up close – it is beautiful - it is inspiring - it is a trulywonderful piece of modern architecture! I know that it’s not to everyone’s taste – toughluck! We’re in the 21st century; we should have buildings that look like they’re from the21st century. It has been my long-held belief that an inability to appreciate modernarchitecture is a failing in any society. This form of aversion to the new and innovativeillustrates an underlying malaise and lack of confidence – but that’s just my opinion!However bad it was going to be inside, the folks behind this project deserved full praisefor creating a beautiful structure. Once inside the door, I was stopped in my tracks bythe beauty and scale of the central atrium of the building – just fantastic! Not muchfurther on I was stopped in my tracks again – this time for a request for over £20 entryfee! They wanted £13.50 for me, £6.75 for one child, but the youngest was free. There’sno getting around it – this was expensive!With heavy heart, but lighter pockets, we headed up the escalators to the officialentrance of the exhibit. I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence as I saw one person maketheir way back out, telling the staff-member present that she wasn’t interested enoughin it to go forward through the galleries. Once through the doors, I could see why. Theinitial galleries tried to put Belfast into its context as a linen producer and a centre of
shipbuilding. It was … fine … but only that. I’d go as far as to call it ‘OK’ … It was filledwith lots of the stuff you would expect from this kind of exhibit – reproductions ofhistoric paintings, brief text on the walls, and lots of stuff happening on TV screens. In2012 this is the bog-standard (love it or loathe it) of what one would expect to find inthis type of ‘experience’ – there was nothing here that showed any innovation at all. TheEdwardian-style silhouettes that were projected across various historic photographywere obviously intended to create the illusion of a living, vibrant city, but they (to me atleast) reinforced the artifice and failure of imagination of the whole affair. I was startingto see why that woman may have turned back, bored to desperation at the thought ofmultiple galleries of this – this looked like it was going to be a long afternoon!But then something changed – I saw a spark of originality that gave me hope. In themiddle of all this was a 3D map of Belfast. By touching panels along the edge variousportions of the map lit up to point out the locations around the city, such as theshipyards and the Harbour Commissioners’ office etc. From there we went into theTitanic Drawing Room. Again, my heart just fell – this was a pokey little space that(even with the attempt to provide an arched ceiling) bore no real relationship to thebeautiful, decaying masterpiece of Victoriana that lay just a few hundred yards fromwhere we were standing. And then the floor lit up! The floor and one of the wallssuddenly became an interactive light-show that actually got to the heart of whathappened at the drawing office. Just to pick out a couple of examples: There was afantastic (and surprisingly interesting) piece on the importance of riveting – the voice-over explained about the process, while the floor showed photographs of what theylooked like. Then it changed to a game where the children had to jump on the pictures ofthe right kind of rivets. Other portions showed how the engines worked and how thedraftsmen designed the whole ship. More important than any individual piece, I sawchildren asking their parents questions about what they were hearing and seeing –families were interacting not just with the sounds and lights, but with each other.Everyone was learning and everyone was having fun – together. I was deeply impressedwith this innovative and skilful melding of computer graphics and an enjoyableeducational atmosphere. My boys were so entranced by it that they had almost to beforcibly removed and promised that further delights awaited!They were not disappointed! The next section took us through a reconstructed portionof the Arrol Gantry, a gigantic system of cranes and lifts constructed in 1908, overslipways 2 and 3. It was used in the construction of both Titanic and Olympic and was adominant element on the Belfast skyline until the 1960s. A wire-cage elevator takes youup the equivalent of only one third of the original gantry height, but looking over theedge was more than enough for me! Then we were in for a little walk round to the onepart of the experience I was honestly dreading – the ‘ride’. I’ll admit I was quicklyrevising my opinions about the experience, but – seriously – how good could this be?Actually, very good indeed! You get into a guided ‘car’ and are brought through variousphases of the Titanic’s construction, from laying the keel and bending the ribs, throughmore riveting and on to launch night. As expected, the children simply adored it. For me– and I’ll be honest - it was immensely cool! Of course, there are other ways ofpresenting this information, but the ride made you feel that you were actually part of theexperience. In particular, the one part where the car moves through a full-size replica of
the Titanic’s rudder assembley is worth the price of admission alone. The genuinefeeling for the scale of the original ship is immediately apparent. I think that one couldread a large amount of text about the Titanic without ever gaining a tactile sense of itsgigantic size. After the ride was over, and we were about to disembark, the custodianoffered us a second trip around as they were relatively quiet and there was no queuewaiting. All I need tell you is that I agreed to it just as quickly and thankfully as thechildren did.Following on from this, a series of well laid-out galleries told the story of the crewingand loading the ships with luggage, supplies and passengers. Inevitably, there was agallery devoted to the events of 14 April 1912, when Titanic struck the iceberg andeventually sunk, with the loss of 1,503 passengers and crew. This was one part of theexperience that I had wondered advance as to how the organisers would approach it.Simply put, the movie version of the sinking that most are familiar with is JamesCameron’s Titanic. This is a CGI and live-action retelling of events in a very graphic andphoto-realistic way. To my mind, the designers of the Titanic Experience were facedwith either producing something even more realistic (and risk being horrifying), or trysomething different. The approach they have taken is to render the sinking in a highlystylised way. Two large screens show projections of an obviously drawn version of theship sinking, as seen from two directions. I appreciate why they have done this – toavoid accusations of being exploitative towards those who suffered and perished on thatnight. However, the lack of obvious representations of people on board saps thepresentation of its real power – this was not just a case of a large piece of navalengineering breaking up and sinking, but a terrible human tragedy. For the humanimpact of the sinking to come through it does need the people.The tour continues with a further gallery devoted to the aftermath – telling the stories ofsome of the rich and poor, famous and ordinary, who survived and who lost their lives inthe sinking. The next gallery examines the aftermath of the sinking. The walls arecrammed with photographs and text, touch-screen terminals allow the visitor to searchthrough the names of the passengers. I suspect that most people who stop here are asvoyeuristic as I am, and chose to search for people of the same surname (there were noChapples on board)[check for your own family here]. At the centre of the gallery is areplica of a Titanic lifeboat, and dramatic re-enactments from the board of enquiry areplayed on a screen above it. Linking this and the previous gallery is a staircase, alongone side of which is (unless I am much mistaken) a representation of the infamousiceberg, composed out of miniature replicas of 1912-style life jackets. If I am anywhereclose to the mark in my understanding of its physical characteristics, this is a deeplyambiguous and thought provoking sculpture. I certainly don’t understand the point thatthe makers are trying to convey. Further portions of the gallery explore some of themyths and legends associated with the ship, such as whether or not there was a ‘cursed’Egyptian mummy on board (there was not). Touch-screen terminals allow you to testyour knowledge of these myths and (hopefully) learn something new along the way.The next main gallery contains an enormous screen playing video from a ROV tour ofthe titanic wreck. After sitting in the large theatre to watch this beautiful and poignantview of the wreck, the visitor descends the stairs to the lower portion of the theatre.
Here you get to see the vast screen close-up, and at an angle that only enhances thesense of scale of the ship. But that’s not what you’re down here for … it’s the floor!There’s a glass floor that allows you to feel like you are hovering over a movingphotomontage plan of the wreck. It is absolutely breathtaking to see Titanic sittingsilently below you, so close that it feels like you could almost reach out and touch it. Isaw some interactive terminals on this level, but I never found out what they did as Ihad to protect my children from being accidentally stepped on. They were so entrancedby this feature that they just lay down on the floor, to better experience the feeling ofdrifting above the wreck. Honestly, I can’t say that I blame them – had I not felt that I’dbe failing in my duties as a parent, I would have joined them!The final gallery is dedicated to contemporary undersea exploration. It currently hasexhibits on marine biology and underwater geophysical prospecting, though theeventual intention is to have live video and audio links with undersea explorationprojects.At this point I just want to mention the staff at the Titanic Experience. Everyone, fromthe ticket-seller at the entrance to the young lady who presented us with ourcommemorative tickets at the end, was thoroughly pleasant, engaging, and well-informed. Everyone we met was happy to talk and explain aspects of the Titanic story toboth adults and children.For those who wish to brave the winds rolling in off Belfast Lough, the position of theArrol Gantry is marked out above the slipways behind the building, as are theapproximate outlines of the Olympic and Titanic as they would originally have sat whilebeing constructed. Out on the slipways, a series of etched glass panels bearing thenames of all the passengers and crew on board is a dignified and restrained monumentto both the people and the ship.
About a week after we visited the site, I took my sons aside individually and asked thema couple of questions about their visit – they both gave the same answers. Yes, they likedthe experience very much and they would like to go back. The best part for them was theride through the building of Titanic. And, yes, if the ride wasn’t available they would stilllike to go. From the parent’s perspective, the entry fee does seem a bit steep … but … it iswell worth it! We spent two hours inside the building where both adult and childrenwere entertained and educated in thoughtful and innovative ways. In no way did I at anytime think that the Experience was disrespectful or exploitative towards those who losttheir lives in the sinking. I had a lot of misconceptions about what I thought the TitanicExperience would be like that, clearly, coloured my view. I honestly doubt that I amalone in these unfounded beliefs. To anyone reading this, from Titanic ‘buff’ to the moregeneral tourist, I would urge you to go visit the Experience – there is something for youthere! Put any preconceptions you may have aside and go – you’ll enjoy it and you’llprobably also learn something new. As for the Chapple family – we’ll definitely bemaking a return journey!NotesIn an attempt to capture some of the experience of the place, I put together a shortmovie of our tour. You can see it on my YouTube channel: here.A different type of Titanic exhibition is currently on display at the Ulster Folk &Transport Museum in Cultra, Co. Down. The TITANICa exhibition takes a much moretraditional approach to presenting a display, with more emphasis on items in displaycases than on computer-based interactive features (though it has those too). However,the TITANICa exhibition also has a number of genuine items retrieved from the wreck.It is visually distinct from the Titanic Experience and is also well worth a look. I havealso posted a video of a Chapple family tour around this exhibit: here.