Being a Masters student in history, I go to a lot of museums. I like to know the history of the places I see, and typically, museums are a wonderful starting point. So when I began planning a trip to Ireland, what museums I would visit was a huge part of my planning process.
My top choice was the Titanic Museum located in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I hadn’t originally planned to go to Belfast, but I knew that I could not miss the opportunity. I absolutely love maritime history, and the Titanic was the spark that lit the fire for me at a pretty young age.
Just a bit of background. The R.M.S. Titanic was built in Belfast and began its maiden voyage in April of 1912. At the time, it was the largest ship in existence and was praised as being the fastest as well. On April 10 th , the Titanic left Southampton to cross the Atlantic Ocean to New York City. The plan was to make it in record time. In total, 2,224 passengers and crew boarded the Titanic. The passengers came from all walks of life, from the wealthiest people in the world, to emigrants hoping to find a better life in the United States.
On April 14th , at 11:40 at night, the Titanic hit an iceberg just 600km off the coast of Newfoundland. The ‘unsinkable ship’, as she was promoted, sunk just past 2 a.m. and out of the 2,224 individuals whom boarded, only 705 survived the tragedy.
Most people today know the story well, mostly because of the popular film, Titanic, directed by James Cameron in the early 1990s. I think I’ve seen the movie almost a dozen times, and I’ve seen various documentary programs on the sinking of the ship.
Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations before I saw the museum. My aunt’s boyfriend went a few years ago and brought me back the visitor guide as my love of ships is well known in my family. It’s a fairly new institution; having opened for the 100th Anniversary of the sinking in 2012 and already is an insanely popular tourist attraction in Belfast. There are a few companies that provide day trips from Dublin, and they are a good option for those who only want to see a few things in the north. I fell under this category, as the Titanic museum was the only site I really knew about, and going to Belfast for a few days didn’t seem worth the money (they’re on the pound, which hurts when you are Canadian).
Yep, Titanic Belfast was the most important thing in my mind, and I chose the tour that would take me there (Wild Rovers Tours). We were allocated about two hours to explore the entirety of the exhibition space, and let me tell you, I could have spent an entire day there. Definitely, if anyone wants to check it out, try and stay for at least three or four hours. There was so much to explore and see, as well as a lot of hidden meanings in the architecture of the building and its surrounding areas. The museum itself is created to look like the White Star Line’s logo, and surrounding the building are benches made to look like the final Morse code message the Titanic sent the night it sank. These little details further the experience to, at times, emotional heights.
Since I booked with a company, the cost of entering the museum was included in that overall price. We arrived early, pretty much just as it opened. I would highly suggest going at this time. We were basically the first ones inside, and by the time we left around noon, it was crazy busy. I also want to note that if you go early, the museum offers discounted ‘early riser’ tickets! It is priced very fairly at £13.50, approximately $23 Canadian. Considering how much you see and how interactive an experience it is, it is definitely worth the price.
Now, the highlights. I could go on and on about the various exhibitions inside the space, but that would go on for pages and pages. So here are my top three experiences about the space.
One of my favourite things about this museum is how incredibly interactive it is. They have a really good mix of artifacts and interactive elements. One of the most immersive is a 3-D digital tour of the Titanic. You walk into a room with three walls with seamless projections of the ship. It takes you on a tour of the Titanic, from its engine rooms to the 1 st class passenger accommodation. This amazed me. It’s all re- creation of course; there isn’t original video of the interior of the ship in good enough quality to accomplish an exhibit like this one. But the experience really is indescribable. One thing I will say is I got very motion sick. It kind of feels like you’re going up an elevator even though you don’t physically move.
Going through the tour route is like wandering through the life of the Titanic from start to finish. You begin with the building process and the history of the White Star Line. From there, guests explore sections on the outfitting of the ship, the engines, the launch, and the disaster. At the very end, visitors can watch a video of the shipwreck itself, shot from a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Its incredible the detail that can be seen of the ship, and the debris left behind on the ocean floor.
Over the past 100+ years, the seafloor has done a marvellous job of conserving the artifacts. In this space, below the video, visitors can explore various sections of the debris field. There are artifacts ranging from plates and cups to metal pipes and brass tins.
All around the museum there are little additions that make the experience that much more emotional. From labels about the distress calls from the Titanic the night it sank, to an exhibit about the heroes of the night, it was enough to push me over the emotional break point. Yes, I cried. I shed some tears, especially when I was reading about Molly Brown, a survivor of the disaster that would later gain the nickname, the unsinkable Molly Brown.
Overall, the experience was incredible. Everything was perfectly planned (in my opinion) and the hidden symbolism and the personal stories made the experience emotional and worth the trek from Dublin. Definitely, if anyone is visiting Ireland, take the time to visit. Going places that use the pound (UK currency because Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom) can be a bit intimidating because the Canadian dollar is terrible right now. I can assure you, it is worth it.
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Public History MA Candidate, Western University @mackenzlemore2