Forget about disaster, we’re going to party like it’s 1912
The Troubles and the Titanic: that's what we're known for across the world and that's what the people who come here want to find out about. Both exert a global fascination, but present a considerable practical and ethical headache for anyone trying to market this place.
The Troubles pose a particular problem. How do you sell the legacy of a dirty war? How do you feed the worldwide interest in our squalid conflict without breaching the boundaries of taste, being accused of political bias, or causing unnecessary pain to victims?
So far, everyone seems far too frightened to try. The Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum is pathetically lily-livered in its attempt to offend no one.
Early plans to exhibit bullet-riddled boots, challenging political art and the shirt worn by founding SDLP leader Gerry Fitt when he was bludgeoned by a police baton at a civil rights rally were scrapped. Instead, we got a bland, boring and strenuously non-controversial show with not an artefact in sight.
There used to be a similar disquiet around the Titanic. The great stricken liner was born in this city and the shame associated with her sinking lingered for generations, in spite of the defensively chippy claim that 'she was all right when she left here'.
But now, with the centenary of the ship's demise approaching in April 2012, it seems that all remaining public discomfort has been ditched.
Titanic isn't a shameful tragedy anymore, she's a worldwide brand, like Disneyland, and we've been far too slow in exploiting the lucrative magic . . . or, at least, that's how the official thinking goes. Forget the fact that Titanic is a by-word for disaster — we're going to party like it's 1912.
So that is why an extraordinary edifice to the Titanic has been rising from the bleak post-industrial wasteland of Queen's Island — at enormous expense.
At a cost of around £77m, most of which is coming from public sources, the Titanic Signature Project is the most expensive tourism project ever built in Northern Ireland.
The Department of Enterprise has applied for a £20m EU grant to help meet the cost of it. Though when the centre opens in March 2012, you will still be expected to pay £13.50-a-pop for the full experience. Just like its namesake, this baby is eating cash.
The building itself is a remarkable construct — flamboyant, grandiose, over-the-top. It demands attention.
On the Titanic Signature Project's website, the comparisons with Titanic are gleefully blatant. There's an online countdown to ‘launch’ day and prospective staff members at the visitor attraction are referred to as ‘crew’. Ever heard of tempting fate?
There is huge pressure on the Titanic Signature Project to deliver — all the more so since this week's Audit Office report which said it needed to attract at least 300,000 visitors a year: any fewer and the long-term future of the building will be in doubt. But what do we get for our money?
The exhibition promises “special effects, dark rides, full-scale reconstructions and innovative interactive features”. I'm sure it will be the sort of all-singing, all-dancing ‘infotainment’ (I hate that word) centre that will blow visitors away — once.
But will they keep coming back in great enough numbers to make the whole thing work? There has been a massive expenditure of public money without any real assurance of sustainability, apart from the usual hype and over-optimistic projected visitor figures.
An opportunity to do something far greater, far more resonant, in memory of our great ship has been missed. This has been a commercially-driven project from start to finish — and it shows.
There is a huge cultural deficit when it comes to this scheme. All the main political parties may be onboard, but where is the involvement from National Museums Northern Ireland, or the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure? Where is the input from internationally recognised experts in the history of the Titanic?
In the Titanic Signature Project, I suspect that what we're going to get is a glorified theme-park; a kind of disaster Disneyland.
Imagination, interpretation and insight have been sacrificed in favour of hubris, spin and the desperate pursuit of profit.
Haven't we remembered anything of what Titanic taught us about the shipwreck of dreams?