Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Titanic Experience Belfast: Review

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One of the things that you’re always told about the act of writing is, before you sit down to do it, know what you’re going to say. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel or a scholarly paper that you are engaged in, this is good advice. Unfortunately, I recently took this advice a little too far.

Let me explain.

Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the construction of the Titanic Experience building in Belfast. This ultra-modern structure was designed by Civic Arts/Eric R. Kuhne & Associates to emulate or recreate four ship's prows. The building itself is finished in a textured metal skin that is intended to further reinforce the connection to the original ships built on the site, while simultaneously giving the impression of light playing over moving water. At six stories tall, it may not be a massive addition to the Belfast skyline, but it certainly cuts a dash. From the first time I saw an artist’s rendering of what it would look like, I have known that I would simply adore this building. As I have seen it rise from the ground, I have become more and more certain in this opinion. However, as I also began to hear reports of what would be inside the building I was filled with a growing sense of dread. First of all, there were to be no original artefacts from the wreck. Nor was there to be a focus on presenting contemporary 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 be an ‘experience’’ (or words to that effect). For-crying-out-loud, there were even plans to have a rollercoaster type ride in this thing! Based on the evidence available to me, I was easily able to deduce that this was going to be tasteless, exploitative, and of no real worth. 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 not going to be an overwhelmingly positive review.

With these expectations firmly in mind, I took my two sons (ages 5 and 3) there on a quiet Thursday afternoon a little while ago. Over the last year in particular, I’ve watched this building take shape, and I’ve been entranced – it is just such a thing of beauty. I’ve seen it from the train, from the windows of the Odyssey complex; I’ve even seen it from Belfast Metropolitan College Titanic Campus (where I’m currently a part-time student). But I’d not been up close – it is beautiful - it is inspiring - it is a truly wonderful piece of modern architecture! I know that it’s not to everyone’s taste – tough luck! We’re in the 21st century; we should have buildings that look like they’re from the 21st century. It has been my long-held belief that an inability to appreciate modern architecture is a failing in any society. This form of aversion to the new and innovative illustrates 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 praise for creating a beautiful structure. Once inside the door, I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty and scale of the central atrium of the building – just fantastic! Not much further on I was stopped in my tracks again – this time for a request for over £20 entry fee! They wanted £13.50 for me, £6.75 for one child, but the youngest was free. There’s no getting around it – this was expensive!

With heavy heart, but lighter pockets, we headed up the escalators to the official entrance of the exhibit. I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence as I saw one person make their way back out, telling the staff-member present that she wasn’t interested enough in it to go forward through the galleries. Once through the doors, I could see why. The initial 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 filled with lots of the stuff you would expect from this kind of exhibit – reproductions of historic paintings, brief text on the walls, and lots of stuff happening on TV screens. In 2012 this is the bog-standard (love it or loathe it) of what one would expect to find in this type of ‘experience’ – there was nothing here that showed any innovation at all. The Edwardian-style silhouettes that were projected across various historic photography were obviously intended to create the illusion of a living, vibrant city, but they (to me at least) reinforced the artifice and failure of imagination of the whole affair. I was starting to see why that woman may have turned back, bored to desperation at the thought of multiple 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 the middle of all this was a 3D map of Belfast. By touching panels along the edge various portions of the map lit up to point out the locations around the city, such as the shipyards and the Harbour Commissioners’ office etc. From there we went into the Titanic 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 the beautiful, decaying masterpiece of Victoriana that lay just a few hundred yards from where we were standing. And then the floor lit up! The floor and one of the walls suddenly became an interactive light-show that actually got to the heart of what happened at the drawing office. Just to pick out a couple of examples: There was a fantastic (and surprisingly interesting) piece on the importance of riveting – the voice-over explained about the process, while the floor showed photographs of what they looked like. Then it changed to a game where the children had to jump on the pictures of the right kind of rivets. Other portions showed how the engines worked and how the draftsmen designed the whole ship. More important than any individual piece, I saw children 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 impressed with this innovative and skilful melding of computer graphics and an enjoyable educational atmosphere. My boys were so entranced by it that they had almost to be forcibly removed and promised that further delights awaited!

They were not disappointed! The next section took us through a reconstructed portion of the Arrol Gantry, a gigantic system of cranes and lifts constructed in 1908, over slipways 2 and 3. It was used in the construction of both Titanic and Olympic and was a dominant element on the Belfast skyline until the 1960s. A wire-cage elevator takes you up the equivalent of only one third of the original gantry height, but looking over the edge was more than enough for me! Then we were in for a little walk round to the one part of the experience I was honestly dreading – the ‘ride’. I’ll admit I was quickly revising 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 various phases of the Titanic’s construction, from laying the keel and bending the ribs, through more 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 of presenting this information, but the ride made you feel that you were actually part of the experience. 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 genuine feeling for the scale of the original ship is immediately apparent. I think that one could read a large amount of text about the Titanic without ever gaining a tactile sense of its gigantic size. After the ride was over, and we were about to disembark, the custodian offered us a second trip around as they were relatively quiet and there was no queue waiting. All I need tell you is that I agreed to it just as quickly and thankfully as the children did.

Following on from this, a series of well laid-out galleries told the story of the crewing and loading the ships with luggage, supplies and passengers. Inevitably, there was a gallery devoted to the events of 14 April 1912, when Titanic struck the iceberg and eventually sunk, with the loss of 1,503 passengers and crew. This was one part of the experience 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 James Cameron’s Titanic. This is a CGI and live-action retelling of events in a very graphic and photo-realistic way. To my mind, the designers of the Titanic Experience were faced with either producing something even more realistic (and risk being horrifying), or try something different. The approach they have taken is to render the sinking in a highly stylised way. Two large screens show projections of an obviously drawn version of the ship sinking, as seen from two directions. I appreciate why they have done this – to avoid accusations of being exploitative towards those who suffered and perished on that night. However, the lack of obvious representations of people on board saps the presentation of its real power – this was not just a case of a large piece of naval engineering breaking up and sinking, but a terrible human tragedy. For the human impact 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 of some of the rich and poor, famous and ordinary, who survived and who lost their lives in the sinking. The next gallery examines the aftermath of the sinking. The walls are crammed with photographs and text, touch-screen terminals allow the visitor to search through the names of the passengers. I suspect that most people who stop here are as voyeuristic as I am, and chose to search for people of the same surname (there were no Chapples on board)[check for your own family here]. At the centre of the gallery is a replica of a Titanic lifeboat, and dramatic re-enactments from the board of enquiry are played on a screen above it. Linking this and the previous gallery is a staircase, along one side of which is (unless I am much mistaken) a representation of the infamous iceberg, composed out of miniature replicas of 1912-style life jackets. If I am anywhere close to the mark in my understanding of its physical characteristics, this is a deeply ambiguous and thought provoking sculpture. I certainly don’t understand the point that the makers are trying to convey. Further portions of the gallery explore some of the myths 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 test your 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 of the titanic wreck. After sitting in the large theatre to watch this beautiful and poignant view 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 the sense 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 moving photomontage plan of the wreck. It is absolutely breathtaking to see Titanic sitting silently below you, so close that it feels like you could almost reach out and touch it. I saw some interactive terminals on this level, but I never found out what they did as I had to protect my children from being accidentally stepped on. They were so entranced by this feature that they just lay down on the floor, to better experience the feeling of drifting above the wreck. Honestly, I can’t say that I blame them – had I not felt that I’d be failing in my duties as a parent, I would have joined them!

The final gallery is dedicated to contemporary undersea exploration. It currently has exhibits on marine biology and underwater geophysical prospecting, though the eventual intention is to have live video and audio links with undersea exploration projects.

At this point I just want to mention the staff at the Titanic Experience. Everyone, from the ticket-seller at the entrance to the young lady who presented us with our commemorative 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 to both adults and children.

For those who wish to brave the winds rolling in off Belfast Lough, the position of the Arrol Gantry is marked out above the slipways behind the building, as are the approximate outlines of the Olympic and Titanic as they would originally have sat while being constructed. Out on the slipways, a series of etched glass panels bearing the names of all the passengers and crew on board is a dignified and restrained monument to both the people and the ship.

About a week after we visited the site, I took my sons aside individually and asked them a couple of questions about their visit – they both gave the same answers. Yes, they liked the experience very much and they would like to go back. The best part for them was the ride through the building of Titanic. And, yes, if the ride wasn’t available they would still like to go. From the parent’s perspective, the entry fee does seem a bit steep … but … it is well worth it! We spent two hours inside the building where both adult and children were entertained and educated in thoughtful and innovative ways. In no way did I at any time think that the Experience was disrespectful or exploitative towards those who lost their lives in the sinking. I had a lot of misconceptions about what I thought the Titanic Experience would be like that, clearly, coloured my view. I honestly doubt that I am alone in these unfounded beliefs. To anyone reading this, from Titanic ‘buff’ to the more general tourist, I would urge you to go visit the Experience – there is something for you there! Put any preconceptions you may have aside and go – you’ll enjoy it and you’ll probably also learn something new. As for the Chapple family – we’ll definitely be making a return journey!

In an attempt to capture some of the experience of the place, I put together a short movie 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 more traditional approach to presenting a display, with more emphasis on items in display cases 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 have also posted a video of a Chapple family tour around this exhibit: here.

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  1. Will have to go now!

  2. Thank you very much for making this review available: my wife and I intend to go, but would like to bring my grandson and possibly other family members, but they live in Dublin, so they may need persuading as they probably share some of the negative preconceptions to which you refer, and this review will definitely help!

    Ultan Cowley, Author of The Men Who Built Britain
    Wexford (www.ultancowley.com)

  3. You've certainly convinced me to go even though I live in Cork. Just wish I had some young children to accompany me!