Titanic Belfast Experience
UPDATE: in April I will re-visit this site, which in recent months underwent some modernization and refurbishment. I wonder how much will have changed. I'll duly report back here after my return.
A shiny new landmark of Northern Ireland
's capital Belfast
, an attraction dedicated to the famous Titanic
, which was built here, at the Harland & Wolff shipyards, literally just steps away from the museum's location. Housed in a purpose-built edifice of striking architecture, the hyper-modern multimedia-loaded "experience" exhibition inside is the most extravagant jewel in the whole new Titanic Quarter
The "Titanic Belfast Experience" is the crowning highpoint in the extensive regeneration scheme that is reclaiming previously derelict post-industrial wastelands of the Queen's Island part of Belfast harbour – once the largest docklands in Ireland.
The TitanicBelfast's creation is the expression of a remarkable change in attitude. For most of the ten decades since the Titanic's sinking, it seemed like nobody in Belfast even wanted to talk about it. The reasoning was probably: why celebrate something that was such an embarrassing failure?
With the increasing fanfare about the Titanic following James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster movie, this slowly began to change. And with the approaching centenary of the tragedy Belfast
city planners got round to the idea of giving the city a top attraction to ride on the wave of this Titanic hype. Planning started in 2005.
At last it was also realized that the Titanic legacy was actually something to be proud of, not ashamed. After all, even though the ship so tragically went down, she had still been a remarkable feat of engineering – just as her sister ships Olympic and Britannic, which are also commemorated and celebrated by the "Titanic Belfast".
The planners of Titanic Belfast certainly did their homework well, and so the exhibition could be opened just in time for the 100th anniversary of the sinking, actually two weeks before: on 31 March 2012. Spot on. It coincided with a vast array of special events put on for the occasion, so Belfast was not left out of the game but became a key participant.
The Titanic Belfast attraction cost over £100 million to build, but soon visitor numbers exceeded all expectations. Envisaged were 400,000 annually, but that figure was already reached after half a year and after nine months the count stood at 650,000. This also explains the strict ticketing regime (see below
). Anyway, this success makes Titanic Belfast actually the most popular tourist attraction in Belfast
and even in the whole of Northern Ireland
, on a par with the Giant's Causeway.
What there is to see:
First things first: if you're expecting something like those Titanic artefact exhibitions displaying loads of objects salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic
, then you will be disappointed. That is not what this exhibition is or tries to be at all. The tragedy of the ship's sinking is of course covered too, but that's not even the main focus here. Instead it covers every aspect of the ship's design and construction and puts it into a wider historical context. And that it does extremely well.
The most stunning aspect of the Titanic Belfast attraction is the building itself. It's a spectacular piece of modern architecture – designed to allude to its topic, namely in that the huge "wedges" that fan out from its central core look a bit like and are of the same height as the Titanic and its sister ships' bows as they were assembled on their slipways next door (see Titanic Quarter
The interior is also a stunning piece of design. The centre is a huge atrium, with one side made from mock riveted steel plates, like the Titanic's hull. The exhibition as such begins upstairs. It's divided into nine topically distinct "galleries".
The first theme is not yet related to Titanic at all, but sets the scene by giving an account of the history of Boomtown Belfast at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time the city was one of the fastest growing ones in the British Isles and nearly overtook Dublin
in size. This was thanks to the industries of Belfast
, which made it a veritable economic powerhouse. The linen industry was one of the backbones of this economy, but there were also major producers of things like carbonated soft drinks, cigarettes and whiskey (Belfast was once the largest producer of the stuff – now not a single drop of it is made here). The other key industry was of course the harbour and in particular its shipyards. The exhibition design is a mix of texts and images, as well as plenty of projections and CGI (computer-generated imagery). But it gets much, much better.
The shipyard proper is the next theme in Gallery 2. It gets more interactive here – and I suppose kids would have fun playing the match-the-rivets game through an interactive walk-in projection. Hi-tech meets kids' game. There's also lot's of more serious technical background info about the engineering side, a model of Thompson Graving Dock (see Titanic Quarter)
, an operational model of the gantry (you can navigate one of its cranes by pushing buttons) and so on. The Titanic's design is already picked up here too – as well as Harland & Wolff's other achievements
But the first true highpoint (literally even) of the Shipyard Gallery is the replica of one of the pillars of the gantry that Titanic and Olympic were constructed under. First you stare up at it, then you take a lift up to see it from above too – it can make you giddy looking down, and that's despite the fact that it's actually scaled down in size by a third or so, according to one of the TitanicBelfast's staff (there are people stationed at various points in the exhibition ready to help and answer questions).
From up here – another highlight! – the funfair part of the experience departs: the Shipyard Ride. You board one of several "cars" that then glide through full-scale ensembles of various parts of shipyard workshops, past a ship's rudder, smithy furnaces and so on, all enhanced by audiovisuals, before depositing visitors back at the more conventional exhibition, which continues with Gallery 3.
The topic of this third section is the launching of Titanic and Olympic, which were huge events watched by countless onlookers and attended by celebrities of the time. The biggest item here is a section of a steel chain filling a triangular floor with projections of film footage of the launch superimposed onto the big windows looking out over the actual former slipways outside.
Gallery 4 is about the fitting out of the ships. This ranges from the more technical sides of engines, propellers, funnels, etc. to the interior design of the cabins and public spaces onboard. There are replicas of first, second and third class cabins, a few original artefacts, such as White Star Line crockery, as well as yet more interactive stations. Some interaction is computer-based, but there are also real hands-on bits. Literally. You can touch and feel various items of Titanic's interior design such as wood panelling, fabrics, ropes, tiles.
The highlight for me was the walk-in projection of a CGI-ed ride through all levels of the ship: the moving images on all sides take you from the engines up through the decks and to the bridge as if you were a ghost capable of walking through walls. I found it totally captivating and stayed for the entire duration of the film … twice!
Then it's off on the maiden voyage of Titanic in Gallery 5, which illustrates what life on board was like … but you already know what's coming next: for most people life on board was about to come to an end.
So Gallery 6 is about the sinking of the Titanic
. I don't have to elaborate on this. The story is well known enough. Its illustration here at the exhibition features a rather crude drawing of the ship slowly tilting in a style that is almost antagonistic after all the hi-tech projections and CGI elements. But recorded interviews with survivors liven things up. More stories of victims and survivors come next, also how the news of the tragedy broke across the world. Recounted too are the rescue efforts, both the successful ones saving survivors, but also the search for those who did not survive. Only a few bodies of the dead were found and retrieved from the sea. They were buried in Halifax
– only 209 out of over 1500!
Gallery 7 is about the aftermath. This focuses mainly on the enquiry into the disaster and features one of the exhibition's star artefacts: the original scale chart used in the enquiry. It is several metres long – you can see the coloured markings indicating the presumed leaks of the gash ripped into the hull by the iceberg collision.
Next comes Gallery 8, which is about the legend of the Titanic, in all manner of media. Naturally, film stands out here. There are film posters of the various versions made over the years beginning with "A Night to Remember" to Cameron's multi-million 1997 movie.
Out of the interactive stations the one I found most addictive was the "Myths and Legends" one. Here you can go through a list of questions and have to decide which of the given myths were true or false. I scored a decent quota of three quarters of the correct answers, but still got some questions wrong to my surprise. It reflects how strong some myths about Titanic are. For instance: I learned, through giving the wrong answer at first, that it hadn't actually been claimed by the designers and the White Star Line that Titanic was "unsinkable". They had used that word, but with little qualifiers such as "practically". Some myths stem from the fictionalized accounts in the films, of course. For instance the claim that Titanic was trying to break a transatlantic speed record. It couldn't have, because it was designed for luxury not speed – the contemporary competitors of the Cunard Line had several knots higher service speed capabilities.
The final section, Gallery 9, is about the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic
and features a cinema room in which footage from the various deep-sea explorations to the wreck is projected onto a huge screen. The images are impressive, but the soundtrack unfortunately features a rather too artificially overexcited voice-over which I found quite annoying. Downstairs there are more interactive stations where for instance you can explore the "debris field" around the wreck and from a map can punch up photos of the various artefacts found down there. Tagged on to the wreck discovery section is a general one about deep-sea exploration as such and the technology involved.
Back in the atrium, a few recent additions were on display when I was there, but I do not know whether they are to remain there permanently. There were props and costumes from the Cameron movie, including the dress that actress Kate Winslet wore in the latter part of the film, i.e. the sinking scenes.
Before you leave Titanic Belfast you could also have a look at the enormous shop. Much of what's on sale is a bit on the tacky side, but there are also some interesting books. The most space is taken up by what is apparently an exclusive clothing range, which goes beyond the usual T-shirts and baseball caps.
On balance: I admit that I had been a bit sceptical before I went to this new attraction, but now I've been I have to concede that it did convince me after all. Very much so in fact. OK, some of the multimedia is a bit heavy-handed, and there are details that were not so good, but that is grossly outweighed by the truly impressive bits, including some of the CGI (it almost pains me to admit that – as in movies I am not a fan of CGI at all). This is what a modern museum design can do when done properly. Hats off.
Some visitors will miss a stronger focus on the ship's sinking – and in particular would wish for richer displays of salvaged artefacts from the wreck. But if you know that that's not what this exhibition is about and instead want to learn about all the other aspects revolving around the topic, and that in a very engaging and entertaining way, then this "experience" exhibition is hard to top. (See under Belfast
and wreck of the Titanic
for examples of exhibitions that do have a focus on artefacts).
In short: highly recommended.
in the middle of the redevelopment area of Queen's Island in the harbour of Belfast
on the eastern bank of the Lagan or rather its mouth where it opens into Belfast Lough. It's ca. one mile (1.7 km – as the crow flies) from Donegall Square in the city centre; ca. a 20 minute walk.
Access and costs: a bit out of the city centre, but still a walkable distance; predictably expensive, but worth it.
To get to the TitanicBelfast attraction you either have to walk all the way, which is doable and actually a pleasant stroll, or get a taxi. There is a Titanic Quarter train station, but it's still quite a walk from there to Titanic Belfast, so it's hardly worth bothering with that option. Buses are another alternative (see this
external link for further information).
the walk-up price for a ticket is £24.45 (various concessions apply for students, seniors, etc.). However, the site's management strongly encourages prospective visitors to pre-book tickets in advance through their online sales engine
(external link, opens in a new tab) in order to guarantee admission. Apparently it can get so busy at times that non-pre-booked visitors have to be turned away! When I went it would not have been necessary, and it didn't feel too crowded at all inside the exhibition, but then again that was in early December, i.e. at an off-season time of year. A saving can be had if you also want to visit the Pump House and Thompson Dock (see Titanic Quarter
): combination tickets are offered, yet the offer is not available in the online pre-purchase engine.
Audio guide rental costs an extra £4 and can be pre-booked with the ticket online. I didn't use one so I can't say anything about their quality. Languages available include English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese and Polish.
Parking at the site, in TitanicBelfast's own underground car park, costs £1.50 for the first hour and £1 per extra hour (spaces cannot be booked online).
Note that when booking ahead online you have to specify an entry time; slots are every 20 minutes up until 1h 40 mins before closing, and you have to be at the entrance no later than 15 minutes before the specified entry time, or else admission cannot be guaranteed. It's quite a tough regime! Group visits are also restricted and have to be booked no less than 7 days in advance.
daily from 9 a.m. 7 p.m. in summer, only 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between October and March.
Time required: The TitanicBelfast website says that the "average visit length" is just an hour and a half. That must mean that loads of people race through the exhibition without giving it due attention or skip the majority of sections altogether. I can allege that because I even found it hard to make do with the three hours I had until closing time when I visited in December 2012. In the end I had to rush through the final two or three galleries at greater speed than I would have wished. So if you really want to make your visit a fully exhaustive one, give it half a day!
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Belfast
and especially Titanic Quarter
and Titanic Tours
. The nearest other Titanic-related attractions are the Harland & Wolff HQ and drawing offices as well as the actual slipways where the Titanic
and her sister ship Olympic were laid on keel and from where they were launched in 1910/11. Both sites are just a few steps away from the TitanicBelfast's entrance.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see under Belfast
The TitanicBelfast attraction sits in the centre of the Titanic Quarter
, which apart from its commodification of the famous ship is also a larger regeneration scheme of a major section of formerly derelict harbour area around it.
This regeneration plan has already yielded the "Odyssey", a huge sports and entertainment complex, which includes the W5 a "science and discovery centre" with lots of interactive stuff that's probably more for a younger clientele (even though they claim it's "for all ages"). Around it there's also already a marina for yachts and pleasure boats, bars, restaurants, shops and: luxury apartment blocks (some are actually available for short-term holiday rental). Architecturally these new buildings can't compete with the slick design of Titanic Belfast, but there have been worse redevelopment schemes (cf. also Hamburg
). The project still has lots more in store and eventually the whole of Queen's Island will be transformed into a whole new city of its own almost. We'll see what it will all feel and look like when it's finished, but for the time being, building sites and still empty expanses where construction yet has to commence will be the key landscape feature of the area.