Some time in the summer of 2014, my two biggest kids developed a fascination with all things Titanic. I’m not quite sure why or how this came about, but for a couple of months it was question after question – was it really the biggest ship in the world? How many people drowned? How did the rest of them survive? Why didn’t someone see the iceberg? Why were they on a ship at all – aren’t planes loads quicker? Why didn’t someone just call 999 on their mobile phone?
Even the endless Minecraft videos were ditched in favour of searching for Titanic related footage – once they had got over the shock that nobody had a smartphone to video its final moments they consoled themselves with reconstructions – this one, from the National Geographic, was their favourite. Until of course they happened across the inevitable Minecraft reimaginings of the story – I kid you not, there’s one right here, and plenty more where that came from!
Minecraft aside, I think this is the first time that my kids have shown more than a passing interest in any historical event, and this, along with the fact that I wanted to nip my eldest’s fear of flying in the bud, led me to book a trip to visit the Titanic Experience in Belfast. (This also meant that I got to spend a couple of days with my lovely friend but that is neither here nor there – oh no, it’s all about the kids, honest!)
I didn’t know what to expect from the exhibition at all, though I did vaguely wonder if there would be enough material around the fairly short life of the Titanic to keep the kids interested for a reasonable amount of time. In fact the opposite was true – there was plenty to keep us occupied and with hindsight I’d probably plan a slightly longer visit with a lunch break in the middle.
The Titanic Experience is structured around nine galleries, charting the story of the ship from ‘Boomtown Belfast’ right through to ‘Visit and Explore the Wreck’. Though the galleries all deal with different aspects of the story, they are structured so that you’re not really aware of passing from one to another – rather, are you are drawn along the storyline, living the experience along with all those involved.
Though the kids were initially keen to get to the bit where the Titanic actually sank (obviously the disaster bit is the most exciting!) they were soon drawn in by the clever storytelling, and the brilliant presentation. Instead of simply reading about the life of children in Belfast at the turn of the century, they got to peer into windows:
Instead of just hearing morse code messages they got the chance to learn to transmit the CQT signal (the precursor to the more familiar SOS distress call):
…and rather than simply looking at structural plans of the ship they could dance in and out and through a constantly moving projection!
Best of all, those clever guys at the Titanic Experience had figured out that there is nothing like including an actual RIDE in the middle of a museum to make it as much fun as possible for kids – so the Shipyard section of the story started with a trip up to the top of the replica of the huge Arrol Gantry, before entering pods which took us up close and personal with the noise, the heat and light and the sheer size of the project to put the Titanic together.
The excitement of the ship’s first launch followed, and there was a real sense of the pride that Belfast felt when this huge monster of a liner finally hit the water – empty and naked at this stage but a massive achievement nonetheless, with the glory and excitement shared by all from the Chief Engineer to the lowliest boiler boy.
At this point of the exhibition the ship begins to take on the characteristics we know so well – the huge funnels are added, the outside is painted in its distinctive colours and of course the insides are fitted out with the opulence of the First Class Quarters and ballroom contrasting strongly with the third class facilities; the kids loved seeing the cabins all made up exactly as they would have been. No less interesting to my number loving boy was the information about what was taken on board the Titanic – 40,000 eggs; 15,000 bottles of beer (‘Daddy would have been alright, then’) and even a couple of cars destined for New York!
The kids were beginning to flag a bit at this point and with hindsight I’d have planned for a break here. However the prospect of seeing the Titanic’s disastrous end perked them up, and so we followed the chain of events right up to the heartbreaking last messages:
And of course the sinking itself was brought to life brilliantly with a giant on screen depiction which the kids watched over and again. Even though it’s an old story, many times retold, it was hard not to feel a real sense of loss for the ship and all the people whose stories were so inextricably linked – passengers, crew, engineers, labourers. This I this I think is the real marker of success for the Titanic Experience – it really does bring the story to life all around you.
The final three galleries dealt with the aftermath of the sinking, the inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic and the lessons learnt which influence maritime safety training to this day. There was also a fascinating section on how the media portrayed the tragedy, with stories of reporters doorstepping victims for the juiciest tales, and where no juiciness was forthcoming, making it up – plus ça change!! I would have liked to spend more time here but the kids were eagerly pulling me towards the final section, ‘Explore the Wreck’ and once I followed them I could see why – the chance to explore the wreck in life-size detail. My photos of this bit are truly awful so here’s one I pinched from the Titanic Experience website – as you can see the lighting is set to recreate the underwater gloom surrounding the wreck, it was quite a shock to emerge blinking into the light afterwards!
The fact that this review is turning into one of my longest ever posts will probably give you an idea of how much there is to say about the Titanic Experience – and there’s plenty from my scribbled notes that I have left out. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth a visit, I would say unreservedly YES – even if you’re not in the midst of a Titanic obsession like my kids, it’s a brilliant way to spend a day. As an added bonus, I have it on very good authority that Father Christmas himself is spending some time there over the next couple of weeks!
If you’d like more information on the Titanic Experience, including special events and family days, check out their website – and also Discover Northern Ireland will give you plenty more ideas for things to see and do in this beautiful part of the world. If you’ve already been lucky enough to visit, I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments below!
**Disclosure – we were given free entry into the Titanic Experience in exchange for an honest review of our visit**