As the doors of Titanic Belfast finally opened to the public, our reporter Patrice Dougan and photographer David Fitzgerald take you on a guided tour of just what’s on offer in this high-tech visitor attraction
The large atrium is a mix of sleek modern finishes and a bygone era.
Four ticket booths on the right-hand side are bordered by wooden surrounds, designed to look like the huge keel blocks on which Titanic rested in the dry dock.
Rising above you is a huge 60ft high wall, plated in rusted-effect metal sheets the same size as those used to build Titanic’s hull.
On the opposite wall the names and numbers of all the ships Harland and Wolff built in that era are marked. In the centre of the atrium is a tiled maritime compass, with lines from Thomas Garnduff’s 1924 poem, Songs From the Shipyard, emblazoned around it.
Standing on that spot, you can look out through the other entrances towards Titanic and Olympic’s slipways in front of you, Harland and Wolff drawing offices to the right, and a view over Belfast harbour to the left.
Above you is a criss-cross of escalators and suspended walkways — including Ireland’s longest freespan escalator, at over 25m long.
At the top of it is a pointed viewing platform, reminiscent of the bow of a ship, which is sure to have tourists acting out their very own ‘Jack and Rose’ moments.
Large wooden blocks, stacked on top of each other and engraved with writing, take the place of the usual wall signage, directing visitors where to go.
Also situated in the atrium — billed as a public space for anyone to enjoy — are a cafe, a bistro and a souvenir shop where you can buy all types of Titanic memorabilia and books, including cutlery with the RMS Titanic logo.
The Titanic ‘journey’ starts on the first floor with gallery one, Boomtown Belfast, which sets the scene of what the city was like at the time the famous ship was built.
Birds chirp overhead as you walk through the entrance, greeted by a huge screen with a street scene from early 1900s. There are a number of these screens inside the gallery, with silhouettes of actors walking around to give the impression of a bustling industrial city.
The four major industries of the time — shipbuilding, rope, linen and tobacco — are detailed, with facts and figures on wall panelling or hanging from the ceiling. The gallery includes an intricate model of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. There are newspaper stands with headlines from the era, taking visitors back to the time of the Home Rule debate and pre-First World War.
On one screen two actors discuss White Star Line’s most recent contract win — three luxury liners, including the Titanic, to be the largest ship in the world.
“The ships will be constructed in our finest shipyard, with our most skilled workers,” the actor says.
Visitors then walk through an original set of Harland and Wolff gates into a design area, where an interactive floor enables them to view plans for the Titanic. Stepping on different parts brings up new details, or in other programmes, games — such as jumping on dots representing rivets to see how many you can ‘fit’ in 30 seconds — showing how much work went into building the luxury liner.
Original drawings of the ship and scale models are also in this section.
Then it’s around the corner into gallery two, The Shipyard, where visitors are met by a 20m high steel scaffolding representing the huge Arrol gantry which was purpose-built to construct Titanic and Olympic.
On top of it is a screen playing footage of shipyard workers on the gantry.
You enter an industrial-style cage lift which takes you up to the top of the gantry, where, walking along planks of wood with exposed steel girders on the side and above, you get a feel for what the workers’ conditions were like — looking over the edge you can see tools and “authentic mess” lying at the bottom.
A head for heights is a benefit here.
In the background noise of the shipyard plays — loud bang
ing and hammering — and as you walk around the structure you’re surrounded by images and photographs of life as a shipbuilder.
Then, as a wave of greasy oil and engine fumes hits your nose, you’re at the entrance of the much-talked about shipyard ride.
A minimum height of 130cm (seven years old) is in place for this ride, which takes you in a six-seater cart through the shipyard.
Descending down into the dark bows of the construction, with loud banging in your ears, you can see workers shaping steel girders in a furnace, hammering in rivets to the ship’s hull, as an audio voiceover describes some of the processes and difficult conditions the Harland and Wolff employees worked in.
The ride twists and turns, jerks and rotates before moving through a scale replica of a section of Titanic’s rudder.
The noise, smells and lighting effects, combined with acted video footage of shipyard workers, all help to immerse the visitor in a sense of what life was like working in the yard.
When you step off the ride there are information panels and interactive stations to further explore shipbuilding, or for anyone who didn’t want to take the ride.
Stepping into gallery three, The Launch, is like entering a different world – bright, light and airy, this represents the excitement of the launch day, when 100,000 people turned up to see Titanic glide into Belfast Lough in May 1911.
A huge window dominates this gallery, where another window shows Titanic in the slipway. A few seconds later, it partially clears – leaving the image of the Arrol Gantry in place – revealing the slipways and docks as they are today.
A huge chain rests on the floor, while overhead a video of a ship’s launch plays. There’s information panels on the launch, including original Harland and Wolff launch books.
Walking into gallery four, The Fit-Out, you are greeted with a large-scale model of the famous ship.
Information panels give details of the liner, while huge images of the ship, inside and out, adorn the wall.
Once inside, a glass cabinet in the middle of the room depicts a first class cabin, with moving images of actors inside.
The luxury of the liner is clear – especially when compared to the much smaller second and third class cabins, where again actors sit inside, reliving the passengers journey.
The main feature in the gallery is what has become known as ‘the cave’ – three huge screens form an almost complete box around you as you stand watching 3D CGI footage of the inside of the Titanic.
Using the same technology as the makers of the movie Avatar, this three-minute journey up through seven levels of the ship gives you a real sense of what it was like on board.
And it’s not just visual, audio accompanies each, from the sound of the engine room to the orchestral music in the first class dining room, to chatting and laughter in the third class dining area and the sound of the sea in the captains area.
This is definitely a must-see feature, and is an impressive addition to the gallery.
Coming out of the cave, visitors can then read all about the opulence and furnishings of the Titanic including what materials and fabrics were used – not to mention who |and what was on board.
Living history: a large chain which would have been used on the boat and (below) Ali Hill looking at an old photograph of the ship as it sailed out to sea
Moving into gallery five, The Maiden Voyage, is like walking out onto Titanic’s deck.
A wooden floor beneath you and windows all around, you are surrounded by light.
There’s wooden benches to sit on and look out across the industrial landscape of the docks and Belfast harbour, or on the opposite side a view down the atrium. On huge glass panels there are enlargements of |Father Frank Browne’s famous photographs depicting life on board — the last surviving |photographs of the Titanic and its passengers.
On one wall is the last photograph ever taken of the fateful liner, as it sailed out of Cobh harbour.
Turning a corner into gallery six, The Sinking, everything changes. Immediately the temperature drops, ice-cold air is blasted into the dark hallway, and a rippling water effect moves beneath your feet.
The sound of beeping morse code messages plays in the background as they appear dotted on electronic panels, and the atmosphere quickly changes.
Gone is the happy, vibrant feeling of the last three galleries — here the tragedy of the Titanic story unfolds.
Along the walls some of the last morse code messages sent to and from the ship are written out, recreating the feeling of dread and fear which ran through the minds of the passengers and crew.
From SOS signals to one of the final messages, simply saying: “Cannot last much longer.”
Moving through to where graphic novel style images of the Titanic sinking on a calm, still sea are projected, you can hear genuine audio of some of the ship’s survivors telling their stories. It has a truly sobering effect.
Information boards detail the events that happened that night, survivors stories, and the confusion which reigned afterwards as news of the collision reached the Press.
These can be explored further on the interactive panels.
In one, a copy of the Belfast Evening Telegraph shows how this newspaper reported events just hours after the sinking. It was not known then the scale of the tragedy, and it was reported that all passengers had safely been transferred to life-boats, with no loss of life.
On a far wall — made from 400 white replica life-jackets — which give an eerie iceberg effect — an image of the Titanic sinking is played.
As you descend the stairs into gallery seven, The Aftermath, the wall of life-jackets is on your right-hand side.
At the bottom a huge life-boat stands in front of you, a real-size replica of the ones which were on board the Titanic, big enough to hold 65 people, and which passengers were transferred onto as the ship sank into the icy Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a clear reference to what we now know – that there were not enough life-boats on the ship to save everybody.
Set in the middle of the boat is a huge double-sided television screen – on one side actors depict the American inquiry into the tragedy, on the other the British inquiry.
Various accents recall events, while sober American and English voices question what happened.
On large information panels on either side, more details of each of the inquiries are provided, with pull out quotes.
At the side of the stairs |are four large-scale computer tablets.
These interactive screens for visitors to search a database of who was on board the Titanic.
With 38 different nationalities on board, it is set to be a key draw for tourists wishing to trace their ancestors, providing details including name, gender, nationality, job, and which class passenger of each person on board.
Further down the gallery is information on Harland and Wolff right up to the present day, as well as details of Titanic’s sister ships, Olympic and Britannic.
Walking through a bright yellow mock Harland and Wolff crane into gallery eight, Myths and Legends, the sounds of Celine Dion’s, My Heart Will Go On, drifts towards you.
A cinema screen in front of you is playing clips from some of the films, songs and characters which have been recreated of the Titanic story, including the James Cameron 1996 blockbuster.
Underneath the yellow crane, details about ‘Samson and Goliath’ are provided – when they were built, their heights, and how much weight they can hold.
Posters line the wall, advertising Titanic movies and plays, photographs of some of the famous characters, and some of the more memorable quotes.
A glass display cabinet holds items of Titanic memorabilia, while a long table-like interactive panel provides more details of the films, plays, books and poems inspired by the ship.
But the real draw will be the four interactive tablets at the far side which visitors can use to explore the myths that surround the Titanic.
Set out in the form of a quiz, burning questions – like was there a cursed mummy on board, did White Star Line claim Titanic was ‘unsinkable’, and did the ship’s hull number, in a Protestant plot, spell out the words ‘no pope’? – will all be answered.
Turning a corner there’s a video of Dr Robert Ballard — the man who discovered Titanic’s wreck site — talking about his historic find.
It marks the entry to gallery nine, Titanic Beneath, where visitors can watch original footage of Dr Ballard’s undersea discovery of the wreck, along with audio from the exploration, on a 12m-wide cinema screen.
At first, the gallery is set out like a darkened cinema room, with pull-down seats available for those who want to watch the whole 10-minute video.
A rippling water effect is projected on the walls and a soft blue-green light gives the feeling of being underwater.
From there you walk down a set of stairs to what is sure to be a highlight for many — the glass floor which allows visitors to stand and look down on a fish-eye view of the Titanic wreck as it sits on the ocean floor.
Thousands of photographs taken by Dr Ballard’s team have been stitched together to create a complete image of the liner in high-definition.
It makes for an unusual feeling, as you stand above the wreck and it floats past your feet, and on one side the video footage is still playing, with Dr Ballard’s voice saying things like, “this is it, that’s the Titanic — pretty impressive, right?” in the background.
Interactive booths allow visitors to explore in more detail the wreck site and debris field, and some of the objects discovered by Dr Ballard’s team.
Down another set of stairs and you’re in the ocean exploration centre. Here there are several television screens showing the team working on the Titanic wreck exploration — some show the control centre with staff relaying information, others sonar charts and data imaging.
This will essentially be the main educational facility in the building, with a dedicated marine biologist available to talk to and explain what’s on the screens.
As well as teaming up with local universities to explore Northern Ireland’s waters, it will also show live high-definition footage of Dr Ballard’s dives from all around the world.
Beneath the myth: Kalista McErlane looking up at a painting of the Titanic and (far left) a man using one of the interactive booths and (left) the staircase of the Titanic
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