Opened in 2012 for the centenary of the Titanic sinking, the SeaCity Museum was the culmination of many years of collecting together items that told the story of Southampton, The Gateway to the World. As this has been a port for major shipping companies for as long as anyone can remember, it will always be best known as the city that hosted the great four-funnelled liners, specifically the Titanic which sailed from here on her final voyage on 10th April 1912 taking 2200 people on their date with destiny.
Previously the artefacts in this museum were displayed at the Maritime Museum close to the water’s edge at the old Wool House, a historic building in itself that hosted two floors of models, posters, shipping items and Titanic related objects such as Captain Smith’s sword. The problem they had was it was very crammed in and there was so much more to say about the city. So for the 100th anniversary of the disaster there was going to be a new building dedicated to the story as well as the history of the port. Using the old court rooms, the building was cleverly designed to give the visitor a taste of the historical aspect of the rooms themselves while immersing into the Titanic story.
You start off with a quick history of the dockyards and city in 1912, showing the visitor what life was like for those wanting to serve on the grandest liners in the world, before moving on to the actual sailing and saying farewell to the hundreds lining the decks on what was thought to be the first of many successful voyages. An interactive section allows you to shovel coal with the same amount of resistance as what one of the notorious “Black Gang” would have had to contend with, or alternatively you can pilot the vessel through Southampton water in a bridge simulator using the ship’s wheel and a computer telling you if you are off course or not.
Here you see the original clock surround, Honour and Glory crowning time, the clock long gone, taken from the sister ship Olympic when she was scrapped in the 1930s. This is the famous part of the Grand Staircase, or for those who watched the 1997 film, where Leonardo DiCaprio waits for Kate Winslet to ask if she wants to “go to a real party!”
Moving on it goes into the story of the disaster and how it affected the town, a map on the ground showing where all the Southampton residents lived on board the ship – and it shocks you to see just how many there are. 540 people did not come home, devastating this city. Voices from survivors come out of the speakers as a timeline shows what happened in a dimmed room, the watch taken from the body of steward Sidney Sedunary showing the hands had stopped at exactly 0150 hours.
This building used to be a courthouse and the owners have utilised the existing surroundings and made it into something unique. The court is done out to how it would have looked at the inquiries, the questions between court and witness being projected onto the far wall as the race to assign blame and learn lessons was quickly heating up. The memorabilia in a far wall of the items used to raise money for the victim’s families brings it home to you how distressing this must have been for those left behind.
Moving on from the Titanic exhibition, the opposite court room is completely different, giving the history of the city in general starting with the medieval finds, the giant model of the liner Queen Mary and dozens of tiny model ships that have, at some point, graced the waters just a mile away. Southampton is not just about the Titanic though, despite it being the major thing that it is known for. The port was heavily involved in the D-Day landings of 1944 and not forgetting the liners requisitioned to head to the Falklands in 1982 that saw the QE2 and Canberra being used as troopships.
Sometimes there is an exhibition on which does lift the entry price up, but all-in-all it is a good visit and well worth checking out if you are in the city. The gift shop is a must for those wanting to learn more, plenty of books for the avid reader as well as other shipping related souvenirs and a visit to the café joined on to it would be a perfect ending.
For me personally, this museum really does bring the Titanic story to life, especially when you consider the impact the disaster had on the town. But it also reminds us that there is so much more to Southampton that one ill-fated ship and this should be celebrated.
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Richard M. Jones is an author and historian specialising in disasters and shipwrecks along with two World Wars. Spending his time between Hampshire and Yorkshire, he has put up 9 memorials to victims of forgotten tragedies and published 18 books along the way.