A couple of weeks ago, I boarded a train at Dublin’s Connelly Station and two hours, twenty-five minutes later and a near run in with an old couple who don’t understand the concept of personal space, I stepped off in Belfast’s Central Station. Alan had just departed for a week in San Francisco and I was meeting up* with the lovely Emma from Adventures of a London Kiwi for tea at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Alan and I have been to Belfast before, back in 2009, but I don’t think the museum had been built yet, or if it had, it wasn’t on our list of places to visit. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from a museum devoted to a boat. A very big boat, yes, but one single boat nonetheless. And while I liked the Titanic movie well enough (I was, after all, a mere lass of 19 or 20 when it came out), I’m not what you’d call obsessed. So yes, I admit to being quite skeptical about a museum devoted entirely to a ship that sunk on its very first voyage. What I wasn’t skeptical about, however, was the idea of eating a lot of sweets and drinking copious amounts of tea while getting to know a really cool chick.
To say I am not a museum person is a bit of an understatement.
While most people devote an entire day to touring The Louvre in Paris, Alan and I blasted our way through it in about three hours. I walked out of the Musee d’Orsay only mildly impressed, and that had more to do with the architecture than the art that was contained within the building. And I’ve never visited San Francisco’s remodeled de Young Museum despite the fact that it was in my backyard for many years and is considered by many to be one of the finest museums in the world. In fact, the only museum I can ever really recall enjoying from start to finish was The Uffizi when we visited Rome and Florence in November 2006 and that’s because whoever curated it did so in such a way moving from one room to the next took you on a journey that highlighted the transitions from one period to the next. And before you think my lack of interest in museums stems from the fact that I might not know anything about art, I assure you that’s not true. I share these feelings with you as someone who could easily have minored in Art History if I’d taken just one more class (the problem with that plan was so much of our time was spent standing around Pittsburgh’s museums and not in a classroom). Anyhow, I digress …
My point here is that for as much as I generally do not enjoy spending time in museums, I found the exhibition at The Titanic Museum to be outstanding. It covered the history of Belfast, the rise of the city’s maritime trade, and the events leading up to, during, and after the sinking of the RMS Titanic through the most inventive use of mixed media.
Here’s a little history about the area and the museum for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing:
Titanic Belfast is a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city’s Titanic Quarter where the RMS Titanic was built. It tells the stories of the ill-fated Titanic, which hit an iceberg and sank during her maiden voyage in 1912, and her sister ships RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic. The building is located on Queen’s Island, an area of land at the entrance of Belfast Lough that was reclaimed from the water in the mid-19th century and was used for many years by shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, who built huge slipways and graving docks to accommodate the simultaneous construction of Olympic and Titanic. The decline of shipbuilding in Belfast left much of the area derelict. Most of the disused structures on the island were demolished but a number of heritage features were given listed status, including the Olympic and Titanic slipways and graving docks, as well as the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes. This derelict land was later renamed the “Titanic Quarter” in 2001 and was earmarked for regeneration. In 2005, plans were announced to build a museum dedicated to Titanic to attract tourists to the area, with the aim of completing it by 2012 to mark the centenary of Titanic’s maiden voyage. Among ideas considered for the attraction was the reconstruction of the massive steel gantry in which Titanic and Olympic were built, or building an illuminated wire frame outline of Titanic in the dock in which she was fitted out. In June 2008, Northern Ireland’s Tourism Minister announced that 50 percent of the attraction’s funding would come from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
The building, now known as Titanic Belfast, was expected to attract 425,000 visitors annually, of whom between 130,000–165,000 would come from outside Northern Ireland; however, first year visitor numbers significantly exceeded those projections, with 807,340 people passing through the museum’s doors, of which 471,702 were from outside Northern Ireland.
There’s even a short ride (!!) through what they’ve named The Shipyard where you are transported through an area that tells the story from the workers’ point of view. When you float past the part of the installment meant to show what the forge looked like, they’ve got space heaters blasting you with the same heat a worker would have felt. Truly, from top to bottom everything has been thought of and executed at a very high level.
If you’re planning on visiting Belfast any time in the near future, I strongly recommend you add Titanic Belfast to your itinerary.
I don’t know that it’d be good for young kids – lots of reading and observing – but for adults interested in history, commerce, and the rise of industrialized societies, it provides a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in Belfast during this remarkable time in our history.
When we were done touring the exhibition, I checked my phone for the train timetable back to Dublin. Seeing that I had to leave for the station in about an hour, we hung out in the museum’s cafe. Unfortunately, when we got back to the train station to buy my tickets I realized I’d made a terrible error. The timetable I’d looked at was a PDF screen capture of the website and whoever had uploaded it had cut off the Sunday schedule, thus keeping me in Belfast for another two hours. I felt bad because I know Emma had dinner plans with the friends she was in town visiting but she was gracious enough not to leave me alone at Belfast’s sad and woebegone train station for the hours before the next train home. Instead, we walked into town and found ourselves at a pub near a pretty shopping center that I remembered from our 2009 visit. Before I knew it, it was time to head back to the station and board the train back to Dublin. Unlike the journey to Belfast, however, this time I had a section of seats all to myself and I was able to get a good amount of writing on my current novel completed.
While the trip was a couple of weeks ago now, I’m still laughing that I can visit a whole other country in the span of an afternoon as if I was driving down to to my old office in Silicon Valley. I guess that’s Western Europe for you.
*My mother in law is horrified that I travel to “foreign” countries to meet people I’ve only ever talked to online but some of the best people I know are part of my “imaginary internet friend” brigade.