I have this terrible habit of not researching my destination as thoroughly as soon as I find out we’ll have someone to take us around. I figured they’ll list the sights for us, tell us which ones are worth seeing, and we’ll go from there. This was the case with Belfast – we added the city because my cousins have a very good friend living there, a Jesuit priest who used to come to our church every summer, and they promised to see him when we go on our trip. However, it took me by surprised when, in the midst of our planning, he asked what we’d like to see in Belfast. I was stumped – what is there to see in Belfast other than its murals? All I’d done was reading about the history of the Troubles; I had no clue what else Belfast had to offer. So, I did what any one would do when desperately looking for an answer: I asked Google. One of the very first search result was Titanic Belfast. Highly indifferent and with very little interest, I thought: Eh, I guess we can check this out.
I’m not a big fan of the Titanic and I didn’t know very much about it other than what I learned from my high-school Canadian History class – that it sank near the coast of Nova Scotia in April 1912. For some reason, I also vividly remember watching the movie with my parents in the theater in Indonesia and they blatantly censored the part where Jack and Rose were in the carriage (blatant as in the screen turned blue for several minutes and returned to normal again once the scene is over). There was no editing to make the scenes transition seamlessly; it was almost as if whoever did it wanted us to know that we’ve missed something. Anyways, I had a point in telling you this: I gained all my knowledge on the Titanic from the 3 hours we spent sitting in that cinema, which, suffice it to say, is limited at best.
Wooh…was that going to change!
The exhibition covers, with great details, the social-economic conditions of Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, the original conception of the ship in Belfast, how she was built, her launch, maiden voyage and catastrophic demise, the aftermath of the disaster (which I had never thought about), and the recent discovery of the wrecks at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Instead of me giving you the play-by-play of how our visit went (because let’s face it – that’s just going to be long and boring), I’ll just list the interesting facts I learned throughout the exhibitions:
1. The museum is located in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, strategically built about 100 yards in front of where Titanic was launched. To the right of the building is the drawing room in which she was designed and to the left is the River Lagan where she first set sail. I gotta give it up to them for thinking about its location so precisely!
2. The architectural design of the building is influenced by maritime themes connected to the Titanic, like ice crystals (hence the jagged edges), the ship’s hull, and the insignia of White Star Line, the British shipping company that made the Titanic.
3. In July 1907, Harland and Wolff Shipbuilders in Belfast took on the immense task of building the ship, employing approximately 15,000 men. The shipyard was not the safest place to be and there were no safety precautions. As a result, many injuries and deaths occurred throughout her construction. The exhibition had a VERY COOL Shipyard Ride – complete with full-scale reconstructions, it is a gentle simulation ride that takes you through a shipyard, so you can see first hand what ship-building was like in those days.
4. Because of the enormity of the ship, they had to built a giant horizontal crane system (weighing approximately 6,000 tons) in order to aid them with the construction. This was facilitated by Sir. William Arrol & Co. of Glasgow, hence its name: The giant Arrol Gantry. It decorated the Belfast skyline and remained functional until the early 1960s.
4. Titanic was launched at 12:15 PM on May 31, 1911, in the presence of important figures and 100,000 onlookers (approximately 1/3 of Belfast’s population then). For the next year, the ship settled in a wide berth in Victoria channel where her engines were installed and her interior was fitted out.
As an aside, at 12:13 pm on 31 May 2011, exactly 100 years after Titanic rolled down her slipway, a single flare was fired over Belfast’s docklands in commemoration. All boats in the area around the Harland and Wolff shipyard then sounded their horns and the assembled crowd applauded for exactly 62 seconds, the time it had originally taken for the liner to roll down the slipway in 1911.
6. If filled to its capacity, the Titanic can carry 3,547 people, 2,453 passengers and 1,094 crew members. When it set sail in 1912, it had 1,317 passengers and 885 crew members.
7. Among the passengers are noblemen and women as well as important figures of the day, such as Macy’s (the famous NYC department store) owner, Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida, silent film actress Dorothy Gibson, and American millionaire John Jacob Astor IV and his wife Madeleine Force Astor. Of course, they all booked First Class and were greeted personally by Captain Edward Smith as they came on board.
8. To feed the passengers and crews, Titanic had 86,000 pounds of meat, 40,000 eggs, 40 tons of potatoes, 7,000 heads of lettuce, 3,500 pounds of onions, 36,000 apples, and 1,000 loaves of bread on board.
9. The Titanic also carried a substantial amount of cargo. Her designation RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship, showing that she carries mail under contract with the British Royal Mail as well as for the United States Post Office Department. At the time of her departure, she carried 3,423 sacks of mail, totaling to about 7 million individual letters.
10. Tragedy struck on April 14, 1912 at 11:40 PM, when she hit an iceberg at almost full-speed. 2.5 hours later, she sank into the depths of the Atlantic, bringing with her the lives of 1,500 men, women, and children.
The crews were never adequately trained for emergency situations, the officers had no idea how many people can fit into a lifeboat, and as a result, many of them were only filled to half of their capacity. At 4 AM, SS Carpathia arrived on the scene of the disaster and took the 710 survivors on board to New York City, Titanic’s original destination.
11. Since the ship is American owned and British built, investigations were launched on both sides of the oceans even before survivors arrived in New York. Both of them reached the following broad conclusions: the regulations on the number of lifeboats that ships had to carry were out of date and inadequate, Captain Smith had failed to take proper heed of ice warnings, the lifeboats had not been properly filled or crewed, and the collision was the direct result of steaming into a dangerous area at too high a speed.
12. In September 1985, a team of researchers led by American oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard and French diving engineer, Jean-Louis Michel, discovered the wreck of the Titanic, almost 4,000 m below sea level. In the haunting words of Dr. Robert Ballard: ”The Titanic lies now in 13,000 feet of water on a gently sloping Alpine-looking countryside overlooking a small canyon below. Its bow faces north and the ship sits upright on its bottom with its mighty stacks pointed upward. There is no light at this great depth and little life can be found. It is a quiet and peaceful place – and a fitting place for the remains of this greatest of sea tragedies to rest. Forever may it remain that way. And may God bless these now-found souls.”
Titanic Belfast is by far the best museum I’ve been to in all my travels and definitely well-worth the £13.50 admission price. Its wealth of materials were presented in a very interactive way, making the educational visit very interesting and fun. All the facts and figured I shared with you above are from the notes I took on my visit there, confirmed by Wikipedia, Titanic Belfast, and Titanica Exhibit of Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.