A striking new museum opens this week in Belfast, the birthplace of the ill-fated Titanic luxury ship. Opening a century after the cruise ship slammed into an iceberg, killing 1,500, the exhibition recalls a tragedy which was long taboo in Northern Ireland's former industrial hub.
Samuel Scott was only 15 years old when he became the first of the Titanic's 1,500 dead. He perished two years before the world's largest and most luxurious ship embarked on its first and last voyage. Scott hailed from Belfast. The city, located in Northern Ireland, experienced an industrial boom a century ago. Samuel worked at the world's largest shipyard Harland & Wolff until he fell from a ladder while riveting the luxury liner, which would sink into the icy Atlantic on the night of April 15, 1912.
The boy in the shipyard would have been surrounded by a deafening cacophany of hammers, scraping saws, screeching winds and yelled instructions. He also would have experienced the smell of steel, coal and open fires. More than one hundred years later, on the same spot, the noise and smells are back again: The Titanic Belfast, a six-story exhibition building, officially opens on March 31 and aims to captivate visitors with special effects, interactive touch screens and talking holograms.
Following in the footsteps of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Belfast has gained a shimmering 116 million ($154 million) prestige building. Construction took three years to complete -- as long as it took to build the Titanic itself -- and the structure stands on the site of the shipyard where the Titanic was hammered into shape. From a seagull's perspective, it resembles the Titanic shipping company White Star Line's logo. Viewed from a fish's perspective, the building's four "hulls" soar as high as the Titanic's bow. An aluminum skin, composed of 3,000 panels, reflects the light from the water at the foot of the building.
Roller Coaster Ride
"The Discovery Center will celebrate the heyday of shipbuilding," explains architect Paul Crowe of Todd Architects. "Back then, everything here had gigantic dimensions. Cranes, scaffolding and the ships." This industrial landscape is recreated for Titanic Belfast's visitors. The walls of the 60-feet high atrium recall rusted steel plates, the ticket office looks like it is made from keel blocks.
Within a space of 11,000 square meters (118,000 square meters), the exhibition organizers tell the story of the legendary cruise ship. Only a few original objects are on show -- instead, the show aims to impart an impression of the story using all the senses. A "3-D cave" takes visitors on a virtual walk through the engine room, corridors and bridge. Elsewhere, people can experience the height of the scaffolding by ascending in a cage elevator. They can also board a small train that takes them through a reconstruction of Samuel Scott's workplace. The journey through the model shipyard takes five minutes, the carriages rotate and move up and down, passing a huge rudder and projected black and white photos.
The building becomes darker and narrower in "The Sinking" section. The temperature drops and the air is filled with the sound of the fast morse code of the last call for help. The light flickers, conveying a sense of the horror of the tragic night when the Titanic struck an iceberg.
"This exhibition is not celebrating the sinking of the Titanic," says Tim Husbands, Managing Director of Titanic Belfast, "but Belfast's engineers' and workers' achievements a hundred years ago."
One passenger ship after another exited the docks at Harland & Wolff, including orders for major shipping lines such as Holland America Line and P & O Lines. Of the 11,000 workers of Samuel's time, only a few hundred remain in the industry in the city today.
'This Is Our Guggenheim'
The decline of the shipyard in the 1960s became symbolic of Belfast's industrial demise. Badly damaged by German bombers and battered by the Northern Ireland conflict for decades, the city today remains economically reliant on the British government.
Belfast's transformation began in earnest in 1998 with the peace agreement. Investors pumped millions of pounds into gleaming shopping malls. Restaurants and cafes now line the city streets. Meanwhile, a £7 billion ($8.3 billion), 75-acre waterfront redevelopment project is underway: the Titanic Quarter will have industry, a film studio, luxury apartments and cafes and the new exhibition will serve as the centerpiece.
And the tourists are coming. While only 400,000 visitors came in 1994, the figure rose to 9.3 million by 2009. It is hoped that the Titanic Belfast, the largest tourism project in Northern Ireland, will spur an ongoing visitor boom. "This is our Eiffel Tower, our Guggenheim. It's our chance to completely change how the world sees our city," says Claire Bradshaw, Titanic Belfast's marketing director. Museum chief Tim Husbands says the site will unlock new visitor markets: "People from India and China who may not know Ireland, but do know the Titanic." The attraction aims to lure 425,000 visitors in its first year, and 80,000 tickets have already been sold.
'Sunk by an Englishman'
For the people of Belfast, the ill-fated steamer was long a taboo. Many locals were crew members, technicians and passengers on the Titanic. The city was left in mourning and people didn't want to be reminded of the disaster. "She was alright when she left here," became the city's stubborn slogan.
Then came director James Cameron, his Hollywood blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and now the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy is fast approaching. With it comes a flood of "Titanic" menus and "Titanic" afternoon teas in luxury hotels. "Titanic" tours are on offer with victim's descendants. There are even salt-and-vinegar Titanic crisps and T-shirts bearing the slogan: "Built by Irishmen, Sunk by an Englishman" -- Captain Edward Smith was English.
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, 15 miles from the showcase building is also gearing up for the predicted flood of Titanic fans. Its "Titanica" exhibition houses some 500 original Titanic items and a themed area. In one of 55 carefully reconstructed buildings from the period, guide John Salvage stands in front of the fireplace, wearing the baggy trousers and wool shirt of a 20th century worker. The 61 year old explained the daily life of workers like Samuel Scott: "At 30, at the latest, they would be deaf, due to the noise of the hammers. They were often missing a finger or an eye -- those were among the less serious accidents," said Salvage holding one of the pound-heavy rivets in his hand. Workers drove more than 3 million rivets into the Titanic during its construction.
Last April, 15-year-old riveter Samuel was honored with a monument in a cemetery in the west of the city. It reads: "Remembering his soul and all those who perished in the sinking of the Titanic."
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