Belfast was where the ill-fated RMS Titanic luxury ocean liner was built. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Belfast was a major shipbuilding port and the primary company, Harland and Wolff, employed 15,000 people. The dry docks, quays, and other facilties are now gone, but not forgotten; a major attraction in Belfast is the Titanic Experience Museum.
This cool building is the home of the museum and it sits right at the site of the now-gone dry dock where the Titanic’s keel was laid and its hull constructed. The outline of the ship is etched into the surrounding pavement, and the building has a hull-like shape and titanium cladding. While in Belfast, Marti and I spent a very enjoyable two hours here. Admission was £16.50, with a senior discount. We found the audio guide to be completely unnecessary.
The museum is very well laid out and exposes you first to the industrial and social foundations of the city in the early 1900s. In addition to being home to a shipbuilding empire, it was also had numerous linen mills, both of which employed a large, poorly-paid, uneducated, workforce. The exhibit materials and technology are first-rate and very professional in presentation, with multi-media displays worked nicely in among photos, artifacts, and printed text on the walls.
The rise of the shipbuilding industry and the motives behind the building of the Titanic are presented. Interestingly, the ship was built primarily to transport 3rd Class passengers (more than 1,100 of them at a time) who were part of the wave of Irish immigration to the West, and the revenue from a small number of 1st and 2nd Class passengers was considered icing on the cake.
The museum explains the process of building the ship: laying the keel, adding the ribs, attaching hull plates, and installing engines, propellers, and anchors. This is very well done, using models and videos. This includes a ride in an amusement park-type car through a suggested shipyard and the hull that injects a little Disney into things. It’s brief, informative, and not too silly; if anything I wish it had been longer.
Once launched into the water in 1911 (an event attended by over 100,000 people – an astonishingly large crowd in those days), the Titanic spent a year being fitted out with its interior facilities. The museum provided neat full-scale examples of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Class accommodations.
In addition, a wonderful immersive video tour of the ship’s interior, from top to bottom, provided a great sense of where things were and their scale. Exhibits of artifacts of everything from fabrics to ropes compete for your attention. Film of the actual launch, sea trials, and formal dedication ceremonies are presented, and engineering drawings and large scale models are on display. There are even “touchable” samples and thoughtful exhibits aimed at children.
The museum is easy to move through and allows you to skip things like the ride if desired. We encountered no bottlenecks, even with several buses of school kids on the premises with us.
Sadly, we all know what happened in the end and it’s treated respectfully and thoroughly in the museum, but without sensationalism. Less well-known, at least to me, was the outcome of the investigations that followed, resulting in numerous changes being made in maritime safety regulations for passenger ships. For example, that there be enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers, and that radios be manned around the clock. A full-scale replica of one of the Titanic’s lifeboats, to contain 40 people, is on display and it was very small. I couldn’t imagine being in it with that many others in open ocean water.
A theater in the museum provides film coverage of the modern day discovery of the Titanic wreck on the ocean floor and an exhibit contains some of the artifacts retrieved. Another exhibit looks at the many books, films, and legends the Titanic has inspired, and a final one discusses modern ocean exploration.
Outside the building you can walk around on the outline of the Titanic in its former dry dock area, as mentioned earlier, and also see examples of full-scale engineering outlines of various ship components (hull plates and such) etched into the pavement.
The Titanic Experience Museum is excellent and Marti and I enjoyed it very much. I recommend it to anyone visiting Belfast. I note that there are two Titanic museums in the U.S. and their locations – in Branson, MO and Pigeon Forge, TN – may be a reflection of their quality.
The Wikipedia entry for the RMS Titanic is especially good and I also recommend it to you.