What a difference 10 months make. The last time I was inside the new Titanic Belfast building it wasn’t much more than a concrete shell — imagination being the key to ‘see’ what the inside would look like.
Now, as it nears completion, the building has been transformed.
Work boots and hard hats were no longer needed as I was given a sneak preview of the iconic new signature building.
Final preparations are still being carried out — the drone of a drill or a banging of a hammer can still be heard, as can a few empty spaces and unpainted walls still be seen, along with a few wires sticking out here and there.
But for the most part the building is on the home stretch.
As I walk into the huge atrium — on one side a floor-to-ceiling wall clad in rusty looking steel panels, the exact size of the panels on the Titanic — there’s a group of future tour guides getting inducted into the building as the shelves in the souvenir shop are being filled.
Everywhere you turn there’s the buzz of final preparations — last minute details like plates and cutlery being taken out of boxes in the cafes with the smell of fresh paint and new carpet accompanying you everywhere.
It’s hard not to be impressed on entering the new attraction.
To get inside you cross a plaza designed to emphasise the location of the building, right in the heart of Belfast’s docks and shipyards — the old Harland and Wolff drawing offices and paint halls visible, a view down the slipways now lined with steel pillars representing the arrol gantry which held the ship under construction, the water and a new sign, the word Titanic cut out of rusty metal.
The windows are full of Titanic facts and people, and as you step through the door the ceiling is lined with steel panels, the ticket booths made from huge wooden planks, all oozing an industrial atmosphere of days gone by.
But this is just a taster of what’s to come.
Each of the nine galleries are designed to tell a different part of the Titanic story, with a strong emphasis on interactive media.
As I’m told before the tour starts: “Do not call it a museum, it is anything but a museum. This is an interactive exhibition and experience.”
It’s a point the PR company is keen to emphasise — every gallery is described as an experience, particularly the ones which are billed as ‘a sensory experience’.
These are the ones where there’s very little information or reading, but the visitor is surrounded by noises, sights and smells — from the arrol gantry ride where you can see how the shipyard workers built the doomed liner and smell the greasy, industrial atmosphere, to the gallery dedicated to the sinking where the temperature drops and the sound of morse code SOS messages and voices dominate.
State-of-the-art technology features in almost every gallery, with iPad displays, video walls, audio information and special lighting being used to help tell the story.
Displays depict actors talking about securing the White Star Line contract and designing the Titanic as well as telling survivors’ stories and re-enacting the inquiries into the sinking. Others feature an interactive passenger database, video footage of the launch of the ship and footage of the Titanic wreck 4,000m under the sea, including a glass floor where you walk above the wreck on the sea bed.
There’s a window which uses high-tech electrodes to change from an image of Titanic being constructed to show the slipways as they are today.
One of the highlights is the CGI ‘cave’ — using the same technique as the makers of Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, designers have recreated the inside of the liner, giving visitors a 3D view of seven different areas of the ship, including the engine room and 1st, 2nd and 3rd class dining rooms.
Watching the footage move from one floor to the next creates a strange feeling of being on the ship, even making me feel slightly seasick.
The galleries also feature items which bring the size of the ship to life, such as replicas of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd class cabins and an exact scale lifeboat to the rudder in the shipyard ride, which is only a third the size of Titanic’s actual rudder, towering above you.
And every now and then as you walk through the building there’s a window which puts the whole thing in context — you look out and see the waterway, the slipways, the dockyard, boats going up and down, cranes — this is where Titanic was built.
One of the most anticipated sights is something most visitors won’t get to see however — the replica grand staircase in the banqueting suite.
Designed almost exactly as the original featured in the liner — with the addition of handrails to meet modern day health and safety regulations — it’s what every girl has wanted to walk down since Kate Winslet met Leonardo Di Caprio in the 1997 Titanic movie.
And with 48 weddings already booked, it’s certain the staircase will feature prominently in every one of those wedding albums.
While it’s difficult to get a true sense of how everything will feel when Titanic Belfast opens at the end of the month as a workman lies across the floor, galleries have panels missing, or you walk past an unpainted wall, there’s enough finished to tell it’s going to be one seriously impressive and emotive visitor attraction.