The Titanic Experience in Belfast

17 April 2016 Sunday afternoon

This afternoon, a subset of our group visited the Titanic museum in Belfast, located in the very harbour where the great ship was built and launched. The Belfast harbour area has been renamed the Titanic Quarter and its main attraction is the museum, named The Titanic Experience which is a futuristic six-story building featuring four hull-shaped wings. It’s definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Belfast. The photo below is from the web (obviously, the blue sky gives it away) because I wasn’t able to capture the entire museum in my photo.

Titanic Belfast

The Titanic was built in Belfast, a project of Harland and Wolff, a company that is still in operation, and is still involved in shipbuilding, repair and marine engineering. The main focus of the company’s 21st century activities is offshore wind farming. But in the 20th century, shipbuilding was the company’s claim to fame—they built all of the ships for the White Star Line, and of course the most famous of those ships is the Titanic. The Titanic Quarter skyline is dominated by two large Harland and Wolff cranes, nicknamed Samson and Goliath (one is pictured below; this is my photo and gives a more accurate picture of what today’s weather was like). These cranes were constructed in the 1970’s (and are still in use today; you can see Samson in operation in this YouTube video) and were obviously not used to build the Titanic, but their presence in the harbour gives a nice visual backdrop to the area which was once well-known for its shipbuilding prowess.

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The company was founded when Edward Harland bought the shipyard from his employer in 1858 and made his German-born assistant Gustave Wolff his partner in 1861. In the early part of the 20th century, Thomas Andrews was hired as the ship architect and it was under his direction that the ship Olympic and the two Olympic-class sister ships Titanic and Britannic were built.  The chairman of White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, was facing competition from Cunard (the company that built the Lusitania) and his response was to build a number of ships that would provide passengers with an unrivaled luxurious experience, similar to that of high-end hotels of that era.

The first level of the museum “Boomtown Belfast” describes the thriving linen, rope and shipbuilding businesses in Belfast that brought workers in from the surrounding countryside seeking employment.  A simulated telegraph allows museum visitors to send “marconigrams”, telegraphic messages like those sent on the Titanic (and named for Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio.) The second level “The Shipyard” featured Titanic blueprints and working models of the twin gantry that was constructed so that two ships could be built at the same time. The Olympic and the Titanic vessels were essentially constructed in parallel. Also at this level was the “shipyard ride”, a Disneyesque ride consisting of suspended pod-like structures that took us through various scenes depicting the working life of the men who labored in the shipyard and illustrated some of the important structural features of the ship’s construction, such as the overlapping hull plates.

The third level “The Launch” describes the procedure involved in releasing the ship into the river and tests carried out in the open waters of the Irish Sea. The fourth level, the “Fit-Out” describes the lengthy process of constructing the passenger cabins and other living spaces for the first,- second-, and third-class passengers. The museum featured models of each of the cabins to give us all an idea of what on-board ship living would have been like. An interesting film (shown on three walls) progressed from the bottom of the ship to the top.

When all was ready, the Titanic sailed out of Belfast Harbour to Southampton to pick up passengers and supplies. A second stop was made in Cherborg, France to pick up additional supplies, mail, and continental Europe passengers.  A brief stop in Queenstown, Ireland, and the ship set sail for New York.

On the fifth level of the museum “The Maiden Voyage” we meet some of the people who traveled aboard the Titanic—wealthy patrons such as John Jacob Astor and his wife, Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Denver millionairess Molly Brown and many others. The White Star Line president J. Bruce Ismay was aboard (who survived the sinking), as well as the naval architect Thomas Andrews (who did not). But the ship also carried a great number of third-class “steerage” passengers who were members of the working class emigrating to America in search of a better life. The White Star Line prided itself on providing a better quality experience to the third-class passengers than other passenger ships in operation at the time.

The sixth level of the museum is called “The Sinking”.  Audio recordings of actual survivors were very powerful, as well as a transcript of the telegraph messages between the Titanic and the Carpathia.  But overall, this area of the museum disappoints. Having viewed extensive photographs, videos, models and reconstructions that describe the design and building of the ship in great detail, it is very disappointing that the museum’s exhibit on this floor does not explain what went wrong beyond the ship-hit-an-iceberg-and-it-sank explanation that we all learned in first grade.

Level seven describes the aftermath, the rescue of the passengers in the lifeboats by the Carpathia and the heroism of the rescuing ship’s captain, the public outcry at the great loss of life, and the new regulations put into place to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude would never happen again. A large movie theatre featured the exploration of the sea floor by Dr. Robert Ballard’s team, who found the wreckage in 1985. And of course, no exhibit would be complete without mentioning the several films that have been made about the tragedy.

But as usual, there was too much to see and too little time, so we made our way out to the coach, where we knew that Brian would be waiting to greet us.

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2 thoughts on “The Titanic Experience in Belfast

  1. The visit to H & W sounds like it was very informative. When I visited Belfast with my Fulbright peers, a major focus of our conference was the political history of the Catholic-Protestant strife in northern Ireland. Given the religious focus of your tour group, will you be spending any of the rest of your time in Belfast digging into that messy subject, or will the tour company steer you away from the signs of conflict that were still clearly evident in 2003?

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  2. Yes, we certainly have been discussing the Troubles. Yesterday morning, we had a local guide, Ken, board our bus who gave us a narrated tour of Belfast in which we discussed the conflict, mainly through the colorful murals and the Berlin-style “Peace Wall”. The signs of conflict are still evident today, and I will describe our tour in a later post.

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