My Obsession with the Titanic took me to Northern Ireland

3 years ago

 I’ve been obsessed with the Titanic since I was a child and saw “A Night to Remember” in reruns. A White Star Line poster hangs in my living room. And I’ve visited many exhibits, read every book or article.  Obsession with disasters might not be the healthiest habit, but I know millions of people join me in fascination with the great ship’s journey.

As we ferried across the unusually placid Irish Sea toward Belfast, I thought of the HMS Titanic. Constructed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, more than a hundred years ago, the Titanic launched for her maiden and last voyage here on April 10, 1912.

Were the waters of the Irish Sea choppy, as usual, not calm like today? What did crew members think about leaving home for Southampton, England, Cherbourg, France, and ultimately, the North Atlantic beyond?

Anyone interested in the Titanic  will relish a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The city is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, after decades of religiously-motivated violence. As the building site for the HMS Titanic, Belfast opened an architecturally and technologically stunning tribute to the fabled lost ship in 2012. The opening of the museum came 100 years after the sinking in 1912.

The 150,700 square foot Belfast Titanic museum—whether first seen by air or on foot—steals your breath and your heart.  I could say it "makes your heart go on," but that would be incredibly cheezy and I'm not a particular fan of Celine Dion.

From above, the building resembles a white star, a clever architectural nod to the White Star Line.  Thousands of 3-D aluminum plates reflect the northern capital’s long days of sunlight as well as the glimmering pools surrounding the base.

Industrialized Belfast was a global shipbuilder for centuries. The multi-level museum is the crown jewel in the Titanic Quarter, a diamond-like façade, reminiscent of the ship’s majestic bow. The museum is moments away from the Harland & Wolff slipways where the hulking boat was built and launched.

Today, the SS Nomadic berths there. She is the last surviving vessel, commissioned by the White Star Line in 1911. The Nomadic ferried passengers to larger White Star Line ships. She came back to Belfast in 2006, restored to former glory as part of the Titanic Quarter.

Visitors to the Belfast Slough area should plan a full day there, seeing the Titanic Museum and accompanying sites. While the other sites are impressive and unforgettable, allow at least four hours in the extensive museum. Even visitors familiar with traveling Titanic shows in the States and the Nova Scotia Maritime exhibit will require hours for the complexity and breadth of the exhibits. Northern Ireland touts the museum as the “world’s largest collection about the Titanic.” (Many of the survivors came to Nova Scotia, as well as many of the bodies discovered.)

Starting in the massive atrium (with all the usual tourist accoutrements including an overpriced gift shop), guests move up  a 124-step escalators through the vast openness of the central atrium. Many aspects of the museum, including the now-iconic outdoor visage and the atrium, reveal the size and scope of the great ship.

This area is a traditional museum space, with exhibits highlighting the Belfast of the second decade of the 20th century. From the beginning of your journey through Belfast, one cannot miss the pride of the Ulster region. 

Moving up two levels, visitors encounter a ride similar to the Peter Pan ride at Disney Parks. Hanging from a small cubicle, visitors traverse through a replica of the powerful Harland & Wolff Shipyard. Work started on the massive boat on March 3, 1909, and Harland & Wolff had as many as 3,000 men working on the ship during the three years of construction. (The ride does not accommodate individuals in wheelchairs or scooters, and is easily bypassed.)

The real “money page” of the museum is on the stunning fourth floor and its galleries. Despite Americans’ familiarity with James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic,” standing inside a virtual ship is mind-blowing. Screens in three directions surround the viewer as high definition cameras move throughout a virtual replica of the Titanic on her fated voyage. Transported from stem to stern, visitors experience the ship as passengers did, from steerage up to first class and the now familiar grand staircase. The experience is humbling, startling and memorable.

Near the always-crowded virtual screens are some replica cabins with holographic images. Use of holograms gives the exhibits an ethereal look—visitors know that the Titanic only experienced its maiden voyage. We intrinsically know what happens to those who sailed; yet, seeing the reality of these passengers as holograms enhances reality.

My  family of five pondered how visitors move from the euphoria of the shipbuilders and first passengers to the horrid reality of shipwreck. I lingered over momentoes—including a precious menu from the last lunch served in first class hung in a tiny frame by itself.

We snapped photos by replicas of the surprisingly large lifeboats. The twenty lifeboats the Titanic had that night could not accommodate the 2,223 passengers on board. Only 1,178 people used the boats. The lifeboats were a grim reminder of what was yet to come.

No spoiler here, though the museum uses all the senses to recreate the terrible events in the northern Atlantic that began before midnight on April 14, 2012 and ended with the sinking of the gargantuan ship later in the early morning hours of April 15.

The visitor moves down a level to explore the immediate aftermath of the sinking as well as examine the myths and legends perpetuated for a century. The museum boasts this is the largest collection of official reporting about the Titanic; touch screens allow visitors to get detailed information about specific questions.

A large exhibit shares the playbills and posters from the many theatrical and television productions about the Titanic – including “A Night to Remember” --  as well as featuring the ship and its legends in popular culture.

The Titanic story, however, did not end in 1912, and neither does the museum. Explorer Robert Ballard discovered Titanic and her relics on the bottom of the north Atlantic in 1985. The museum gained access to exceptional high-definition footage that runs continuously in the two-story theatre.

The Titanic Belfast web site advises visitors to pre-order tickets online. Tickets are cheaper online than at the door, though a £1 fee is added. Prices are about £16 for adults and £8 for children, with family packages available. 

Amy Abbott writes "The Raven Lunatic" column for multiple Indiana newspapers. She's the author of two books "The Luxury of Daydreams" and "A Piece of Her Mind."  Her third book, "A Piece of Her Heart" will be published in 2014. 

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