Belfast Telegraph

Is this best way to remember Titanic?

There is much more to this great maritime tragedy than creating a tourist magnet, argues William Neill

At the risk of being labelled a Belfast Begrudger are there not aspects of the build up to the 'Titanic Commemoration' on April 14/15 that ring hollow in the light of what is being remembered?

The Titanic has mythic status because she is associated with tragedy and touches on raw cultural nerves in western society.

Hubris, courage, heroism, fate, fear and stoicism are meanings and values that have been incorporated into the existential lifeblood of our culture via the symbolism of Titanic.

In serious memory we must surely tread carefully. Has Belfast been up to the task?

While the local concerts, plays and new memorial garden at the City Hall are to be commended, the centrepiece of Belfast's response to the 100-year anniversary of the disaster is the new Titanic Belfast Signature Building, part of a major tourist drive.

Setting aside the tasteless MTV music event on the slipways on April 13 which promises a 'blistering and dynamite night of entertainment', more generally the hitching of the Titanic legacy so blatantly to commercial gain must make some Belfast citizens like myself uneasy.

While other places may exploit the legacy of Titanic and reduce it to a crude brand to be sold, surely the memory of what the ship has come to represent should be treated with more respect in the place of the ship's birth?

Belfast, as the promoters keep telling us, has a special relationship to Titanic. Have we done that special relationship proud?

The Titanic Belfast project, opened a few days ago to much fanfare, has already been described by some of the world's media as a Disaster Tourism Theme Park.

The ticket displayed on the Titanic Belfast website hails the opening on March 31 as coinciding with the year of its launch.

Given that this was May 31 2011, is this not taking the licence provided by infotainment too far?

Piping in cold air and simulating the horrifying conditions on the icy north Atlantic on that fateful night 100 years ago is also surely to prioritise experience and sensation over thought and contemplation.

While Titanic clearly entertains, does it not deserve better in its birthplace?

The use of Titanic to symbolise Belfast's engineering prowess was always going to be difficult given that the name is a byword for tragedy.

Whether the city can do the former without compromising respect for the latter is a question that needs to be posed.

It is certainly lamentable that the original Drawing Offices where Titanic was designed have been allowed to languish in a state of decay overshadowed by the New Titanic Belfast.

One can only hope that the structural condition of the Drawing Offices has not been compromised by the foundational work for the new neighbour.

Here one of the most important physical legacies of the Titanic story, the womb of the ship of imagination, has been sidelined and neglected having just been saved by the recession from also being commercialised as a Titanic theme hotel. I am co-organising a conference on Titanic Tourism and Memory in Berlin on the centenary of the foundering .

In that city more abstract artistic forms have been employed in memory projects associated with tragedy. While the two cities are , of course, quite different one still wonders what, say, the artist Antony Gormley's installation of his 100 or so iron men looking out to sea on a Merseyside beach would have looked like if dotted around the topography of Titanic and the slipways .

The installation has been a reimaging success and tourist draw for Liverpool where Titanic was registered.

The Titanic cultural legacy is something that belongs to all of us. It is not just a product. It speaks to great fears but also aspirational values within our culture.

I will make the case at the Berlin conference for a Titanic 'counter monument' in Belfast to remind us of these rather than commercial aspects of memory.


From Belfast Telegraph