Monday, 17 December 2012

Out and about: Titanic Belfast

I kind of knew that Titanic was built in Belfast, but it also kind of slipped my mind. It's one of the facts about the most famous ship in history that disappeared behind a wall of fiction in my mind, created by James Cameron. Everything I now "know" about the ship centres around a certain floppy haired actor and a porcelain skinned actress! So, seeing as all the facts I knew had cleverly wiped themselves from my brain, and this year is the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy, it felt right that on our trip to Dublin, we booked some train tickets to head up to Belfast to see the recently opened exhibition.

Of course it's not like normal exhibitions full of artefacts and actual tangible items for you to oooh and aaah over, or in this case, observe in respectful silence and with tears in your eyes. But it's the artefacts that usually pull me in and help me identify with the story the exhibition is trying to tell. I've mentioned before that the way my imagination works, and my interest is piqued, is not with "look at this sculpture in a blank white room at XYZ gallery" but "you are standing on the very same floor boards on which Elizabeth I once stood to look at a map of the encroaching Armada".  Statement one - leaves me cold as day old porridge. Statement two - fires up my interest, imagination and senses... I'm enraptured.

So I was a bit worried that it'd leave me a bit cold with no actual stuff (that's not meant to sound crass), and that I'd find it hard to empathise with the story. I needn't have worried. Titanic's glorious beginnings are told with pictures, videos, on-board simulations, stories read by actors and real life accounts from survivors told in their own words and voices. The set up is clever, taking you through the history of the community that built her, an actual journey into the "shipyard", through a very clever launch simulation looking over the actual dock where she first hit water, and then "inside" as they fitted her out.

Then the mood changes, and the moment she is hit is detailed with a number of displays, narrations and visual effects that left me shivering inside. I sat in the room that told this part of the story in a reflective silence for a long time, listening to the actual voices of survivors and reading the distress message transcripts over and over.

The inquests that followed and the changes in maritime law were then examined and after that you reach a beautiful display of the countless books, films and pieces of music written in tribute to the ship, her crew, her survivors and the poor lost souls, and the years of media coverage her wreckage has generated.

And then there's the best bit, a theatre playing footage and voiceover commentary from the submarine that found Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. It's enchanting, mesmerising, chilling and upsetting all at the same time. Anyone that's seen the James Cameron film will also recognise snippets. At the end of the film you can then explore the sea bed for artefacts using touch screens to access different visual locations from the various mini-submarines and even stand on the (fake) glass floor to look through to the "sea bed" beneath your feet. Even though you know it's all a simulation, it's startlingly real and even made me feel a bit queasy! 

At the very end I was also excited to find the actual costumes worn by Kate and Leo in the James Cameron film along with a few others, and some props, which explains why they weren't at the V&A Hollywood Costume Exhibition, where I expected to see them! 

It really was very cleverly done and, considering there's nothing but photos, film and interviews that they can show, it really captured my heart and drew me right in. My highlights would include the virtual deck tour, re-creations of the cabins, the deep water exploration theatre and the interactive "artefact locator" with the "glass" floor. It's most definitely worth a visit if you're in the City.

We booked tickets online and took a cab from Belfast Central station which takes no more than ten minutes.

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