Everyone has seen the movie. But the real RMS Titanic had no Jack, no Rose, no Leo, and no Kate. It was a ship built by real people. And real people died when the Titanic sank. To honor their memory, the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland has built what promises to be Titanic’s single greatest memorial exhibit in the place the ship was built.
Titanic Belfast opened March 31, a few weeks short of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Coast chatted with exhibit CEO Tim Husbands just days before the opening. The exhibit mixes artifacts, photos, video, and even a ride to give visitors a deeper understanding of what the ship was – and was not – than ever before.
Belfast had a 20th century that buried it beneath a cloud of bad press. How does the exhibit fit in with a city that is now trying to attract tourists while not running from its past?
Titanic Belfast is not a museum but of a Titanic experience in which nine interpretative and interactive galleries explore the sights, sounds, smells, and stories of Titanic, as well as the city and people which made her. National Geographic cited Titanic Belfast as the main attraction for visitors to Belfast to look forward to in 2012, bringing Belfast to the forefront of global tourism and named Belfast among the world’s top 20 travel destinations for 2012.
What convinced local and national leaders to get behind the building of this?
Tourism has been identified as a thriving market for Northern Ireland and Titanic Belfast will be the flagship attraction in Northern Ireland’s tourism offer which also includes the Giant’s Causeway. It is expected that up to 425,000 people will visit Titanic Belfast in 2012, 150,000 will be from outside Northern Ireland.
What were the goals in putting the exhibit together and how important was it that it is built in the shipyards and not somewhere in the middle of town?
In 2003, Pat Doherty, chairman of Titanic Belfast, revisited the former shipyards on Queen’s Island, the same yards where the RMS Titanic was built. He became increasingly convinced that the new Titanic Quarter could be developed into a vibrant waterfront community which would be the hub of a new economic development centerpiece for Belfast, bringing with it the regeneration of homes, shops, hotels, offices, entertainment, education, and cultural amenities. Titanic Belfast is the culmination of that vision, commemorating and honoring the people and history of Belfast with this building at its center. Without the support of the Northern Ireland Executive, Belfast Harbour Commissioners and Belfast City Council, this achievement would not have been possible.
How did other historic sites around the world – either solemn or revered – figure into the making of Titanic Belfast?
Titanic Belfast seeks to be as iconic as the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The building is unique. Can you explain the importance of the design?
Titanic Belfast covers a three-acre site in sight of the slipway where construction work on the Titanic began. The building has a striking geometry, providing a challenging build program which required ground-breaking construction techniques. Its stand-out exterior façade, which replicates four 90-foot-high hulls, is clad in 3,000 individual silver anodized aluminum shards, of which two-thirds are unique in design. The resolution of the geometries involved required the use of sophisticated 3D-modeling and a process of "virtual prototyping" which was developed specifically for the project.
I notice you’ve dedicated a portion of the tour to dealing with various fictions about the ship and the sinking. It seems a delicate dance, since much of what drives interest in the Titanic nowadays was generated from the movie. How do you balance the truth with the Hollywood image in the selling of this to visitors?
The myths and legends surrounding the Titanic are part of the story and its enduring appeal. The galleries deal with these in a sensitive manner.
How will Titanic Belfast fit in with the city’s Titanic Quarter?
Titanic Belfast is very much the jewel in the Titanic Quarter crown. Titanic Quarter is one of Europe’s largest urban waterfront regeneration schemes, transforming 185 acres on the banks of Belfast’s River Lagan into a new mixed-use maritime quarter with a mile of water frontage. The development consists of residential accommodation, office space, hotels, academic activities and leisure, retail and heritage space. A co-promotion between Titanic Quarter Ltd and Belfast Harbour, it is anticipated that over 20,000 people will work or live in the £7 billion [euros]-plus Titanic Quarter development upon completion. Titanic Quarter is bringing new life to a part of Belfast that is rich in both history and potential. The site is centered on former shipbuilding land from which vessels such as the RMS Titanic, Olympic and SS Canberra were launched – some of the most innovative and complex engineering projects ever undertaken. It will become a major social and business meeting place with galleries, theaters, parklands, and water sports all easily connected to Belfast's thriving city centre and the George Best Belfast City Airport.
What do you want visitors to experience and to ultimately come away with?
Located in the heart of Belfast, right beside the historic site on which the world-famous ship was constructed, Titanic Belfast tells the story of the Titanic, from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to her famous maiden voyage and tragic end. We realize the attraction must evolve over time and we have plans to keep Titanic Belfast fresh so that visitors who return five or six years down the line will have something new to add to their experience. Titanic Belfast is also home to The Titanic Suite, Northern Ireland’s newest and largest banquet venue. The suite, themed on styles used with Titanic itself, offers panoramic views of the city and space for between 50 and 1,000 guests.