Uncover the legend of the Titanic in the city where it all began through the various galleries and gizmos of Titanic Belfast, says Avril-Ann Braganza
The instrumental version of My Heart Will Go On, plays softly as I walk around 'Myths and Legends', the eighth of the nine galleries in Titanic Belfast. This visitor attraction sits on the site where RMS Titanic was designed and built. “The way the films have presented Titanic's last hours has shaped how we think and feel about what may have happened on board,” reads the plaque on the wall covered with movie posters and quotes. Today, the Titanic is a story of heroes and villains, the contrast between wealth and happy-go-lucky poverty, and above all romance.
But what is its history?
Located in the Titanic Quarter, Titanic Belfast can hold over 3,547 visitors, the same as Titanic's capacity. 'Boomtown Belfast' informs visitors about the thriving industries and design innovations that led to the creation of the Titanic. In 1908, two new giant slipways were built and the 6,000 tonne, steel Arrol Gantry was erected by Sir William Arrol & Company to prepare for the construction of the world's largest ships: Olympic and Titanic. It could be seen from anywhere in Belfast. I move on through the original Harland & Wolff shipyard gates and get ready for the slow Shipyard Ride in the dark, complete with special effects, animation and full-scale reconstructions to recreate the early 1900s shipbuilding reality. Building of the Titanic began on 31st March 1909, when its keel (backbone) was laid in slipway No. 3 underneath the Arrol Gantry, it was followed by framing, plating and riveting.
At the next gallery, 'The Launch of Titanic', a large window overlooks the actual slipways and exhibits tell you that 100,000 people turned up to watch the ship leave on 31st May 1911. Within an hour of the launch, the Titanic was towed by tugs to the deep water wharf to be fitted with passenger accommodation, engines, boilers, funnels and propellers. It was the 'Ship of Dreams', the most luxurious and prestigious ocean liner with furnishings, fittings and food to rival the world's finest hotels.
'Fit Out' exhibits replicas of the first, second and third class cabins. Feeling the samples of the carpets, I imagine first-class passengers eating from the fine tableware on display. Evident are the skill and craftsmanship that went into the ship's completion–from its enormous boilers and engines to sanitaryware and fine upholstery work.
On 2nd April 1912, Titanic left Belfast for England, France and Ireland before heading to America. 'Maiden Voyage' tells stories of passengers, like John Jacob Astor IV (the wealthiest on the Titanic and one of USA's richest men); life aboard the ship and her near collision in Southampton. Photographs here also include the last one taken of the ship when it departed Queenstown on 11th April.
I walk through the last few galleries—in 'The Sinking', the heroism and horror of Titanic's last hours on 14th April 1912 are conveyed through the SOS messages sent out, stories of the survivors and the millionaires who died, as well as details of Carpathia: the first ship to reach the scene of disaster. The British-built and American-owned ship's sinking was investigated by both sides.
'The Aftermath' provides details of the inquiries and news reports using recordings and exhibits. 'Myths and Reality' puts together the movies, books, songs, legends and fantasies surrounding Titanic's story. In the last section, I am reminded of the beginning of the film as I watch Dr. Robert Ballard's footage of the wreck on a huge projection screen. The American oceanographer and French diving engineer Jean-Louis Michel discovered the sunk ship nearly 4,000 m below sea level, in 1985. I swipe through the interactive learning pods to explore the debris of the wreck—shoes, china, the cast-iron part of a bench, a captain's bath, a mattress, etc.
Before you leave the Titanic Quarter, don't forget to visit SS Nomadic just across from Titanic Belfast. The tender vessel transferred passengers from Cherbourg Harbour to RMS Titanic which, due to its size, had to anchor well off shore.