There is no better place to experience the story of the Titanic than its birthplace – Belfast in Northern Ireland. The city is divided into quarters and one of them is named the Titanic Quarter after the legendary White Star liner which hit an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank. Located in the heart of this Quarter, next to the very slipways where the iconic ship was built, is the Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction which opened to the public in March 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship’s journey. A coming home that never happened a 100 years ago.
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Drawing from the past
It took 97 million Pounds, ten years of planning and three years for constructing the Titanic Belfast, almost the same time as it took to build the ship. Also, like its namesake, Titanic Belfast was designed with a lot of planning by architects Eric Kuhne and Mark Evans of Civic Arts/Eric R Kuhne & Associates with Todd Architects as the lead consultant/architect. Viewed from above, Titanic Belfast looks like a star shaped building, representing the logo of the White Star line, the company which owned the Titanic. The design replicates the hulls of four ships and stands 90 feet tall, the same height of the Titanic from keel to deck – so one can imagine how big she was with her four funnels added. The Titanic sign in front of the building was crafted in Northern Ireland and is cut from a steel plate 2.5 cm thick, similar to those used to construct the ship herself. The sign weighs 16 tonnes – the same weight as Titanic’s forward anchor. The exterior of the building is clad in 3,000 silver anodised aluminium shards of which two-thirds are individual in design, giving the structure a unique appearance. The reflection from the water pools around the base of the building gives an illusion of glistening water to its exterior.
Titanica, a bronze sculpture by Rowen Gillespie depicting a diving female adorns the front of the building. It is mounted on a brass base, similar to the design of figureheads on ships’ prows. Weighing three-quarters of a ton, the sculpture was dedicated by representatives of the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches before the opening.
On the plaza outside the building there are small wooden seats and benches positioned to depict Morse Code (a sequence of dots and dashes ships used to transmit messages). The seats moving clockwise around the plaza read ‘De (this is) MGY MGY (Titanic’s call sign) CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD’, the message that the illfated ship would have sent out on that tragic night of April 14, 1912. Even the doors (when you enter the building from the car park) reads in Morse Code, ‘Welcome to Titanic Belfast’.
The shipyard experience
The impressive 20,000 sq ft five storey central atrium is inspired by the scaffolding, gantries and cranes that would have filled the space between Titanic and Olympic (the sister ship built at the same time) as they sat on the slipways.
In the centre of the atrium on the floor is a compass and one of the biggest maps of the Northern Hemisphere in the world. The four colours of stone give a 3D effect, and the central rose in the compass extends its central ‘rhumb lines’ out for each compass point which connects with the map in the atrium and out onto the outdoor plaza. Around the compass there are quotations from works by Thomas Carduff, the Belfast born poet known as the ‘Shipyard Poet’. Titanic’s journey can be traced on the map on the outdoor plaza with the light tiles representing the sea and the dark tiles depicting land. One track which links the ship from Belfast across the Atlantic to New York is lit in LED lights at night.
The nine interactive galleries within Titanic Belfast takes visitors through the story of the ship from her conception and construction in Belfast to where she lies on the ocean floor today (she was discovered by Professor Ballard in 1985). The interactive experience includes a dark ride, underwater exploration theatre, recreations of the ship’s decks and cabins and a luxurious conference and banqueting suite with capacity for up to 1,000 people. The Titanic Suites have been designed based on Titanic’s interiors including an exact replica of the original ballroom with the two-sided spiral staircase made famous in Cameron’s movie. The staircase has even inspired events called ‘Staircase Sundays’ recently which evoked huge interest.
A maritime heritage
Near the main south entrance to Titanic Belfast, visitors can see SS Nomadic, the tender ship which served Titanic on her maiden voyage, carrying first and second class passengers from the port of Cherberg to the ship. Over the years she has also carried such people as Charlie Chaplin, Margaret (Molly) Brown Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to other Harland & Wolff (H&W) ships like Oceanic, Olympic, Caronia, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The SS Nomadic has since been returned to Belfast and as the last remaining ship of the White Star line, she is undergoing a major restoration project to return her to her former glory. When complete, she too will open as a visitor attraction.
Just 10 metres from Titanic Belfast are the historic slipways where the Titanic and Olympic were first launched into the water. The steel posts on both sides of each slipway are inset with vertical lights and the outline of the two ships on the slipways are also inset with a blue lit glass giving a 3D effect at night. To the east entrance of Titanic Belfast is the original red brick building, the H&W Drawing Offices where Titanic and her sister ships – Olympic and Britannic – were conceptualised and designed. This building is also being restored. A short stroll away is also another must-see site – the Titanic’s dry dock, where the ship last sat on dry ground. Inside the pump house, visitors can see the gargantuan hydraulic accumulator and the original pumps that could empty the massive dock in only 100 minutes. Another attraction nearby is the Titanic Studios, a film production facility.
Till date more than 570,000 visitors have experienced Titanic Belfast and the target is to touch 730,000 visitors when it completes a year in March 2013.