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A few days ago I had the chance to visit Titanic Belfast. It was a good opportunity to think about the theatricality in our presentations of heritage, or the production of an experience, especially after my last post and my post of a year ago about re-visiting Stonehenge.

 

Titanic Belfast was definitely a site where I expected the big production: impressive architecture, great facilities (shop, café, car park), and a full-on, high-spec exhibition. And it was all that. And it was satisfying for that reason, too, although there were definitely a few issues, or would have been, if the visit had been during the busy summer months [1].

 

I think the reason why a big production feels appropriate here is fundamentally about absence: there is little on-site, or at least not the one thing everyone probably craves to see, and that’s Titanic herself. Mind, there is nevertheless a very strong sense of place. The museum is right beside the slipway where Titanic was built, and the working harbour, including the company that built the ship, still envelops the site. That’s pretty exciting, but it’s made more exciting because of the production. For one, the architecture evokes the bow of the ship, apparently at the same size of the ship itself. Then there is the (very clever) view out onto the slipway from the building just at the right place in the exhibition where it talks about Titanic’s launch, and from a good height too (my colleague and I were wondering how the height compared to the ship’s height if it were in front of you). I can’t see how a stroll through the harbour could have engendered a similar encounter with it or with Titanic, and for that reason I would say that this production works; architecture that truly supports interpretation, visitor experience, and a sense of place.

 

And the same holds for many of the elements in the exhibition. There is an excellent three-sided video projection that takes you through Titanic; although it gave me motion-sickness, I thought this was a really good way of letting visitors experience the ship, something that most probably want. There are also recreations of cabins and of a part of the deck, all coming after well-designed interpretation telling you about Belfast’s industry and Titanic’s construction, and followed by a really tasteful and evocative presentation of the sinking, using morse code messages sent at the time. There definitely was no sensationalism here.

 

Although I didn’t think the exhibition made the most of what it could have been, it was staged in such a way that met my expectations for an experience to which I can’t see an alternative: a way to ‘touch’ the story of Titanic. I think in a case like this, where there isn’t substantial tangible connection with a story, a big production can be both justified and immensely helpful as infrastructure. The Titanic story is still huge; people are still fascinated by it and it still plays a role in popular culture. To those interested, Titanic Belfast probably offers a focus for living and breathing the story, to make it part of their own biographies [2]. And despite the big production, the creators of the museum really did manage to avoid being cheesy. I know that some people would still dismiss it as Disneyfication, and the ‘Have your picture taken’ at the start did feel a bit over-the-top [3]. I would be interested in studies that capture both what attracts people in general to the story of Titanic and why people come to this particular attraction, for I think that gives the best indication of whether the production on offer is ultimately appropriate. For me, I thought in this instance the theatricality and slick production worked [4]. It is undoubtedly a manufactured ‘heritage product’, but since Titanic has sunk and people still feel inspired by it, I really can’t bring myself to criticise it for that – not the least because there is a real effort to connect it to more than a sensationalist story, including connecting it with contemporary Belfast. This is part of a wider regeneration project, and from what it looks like, that part has worked too.

 

Notes

[1] It started with not being able to find the car park, which apparently is right underneath the building. That’s convenient and great, but seriously, there was two of us and we couldn’t see the signs for the car park. Talking about pre-visit stress. The layout of the exhibition with separate themed exhibition ‘rooms’ was also such that it created bottle necks even on what was a not very busy day. There were several instances where you couldn’t see the panels, and no-one dared to use the interactives, because there were just too many people clustered around and trying to get a glimpse. There was also a ride, which in my opinion added nothing to the experience, except the need to queue on a busy day. We walked right up, but if I had had to wait the 20 minutes that were indicated along the wall I would have been less than impressed.

[2] Just like visiting the locations where films were made becomes a part of our own biographies, an expression of our own identities in the things that interest us, who we are, what we identify with, and what inspires us.

[3] Although, had I been there with a friend, I would have cheerfully embraced it as fun – who says that history, or heritage, can’t be lighthearted?

[4] I write this especially in light of just having done an assessment of the interpretation of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, where I also had an expectation of a bit more presentation and production than what is there, similar perhaps to Stonehenge. And while I think there are good visitor management and access reasons to think about doing a bit more (if and where possible) at the WHS, I also really came to appreciate the simplicity of the visits. To lose that would be to lose the essence and experience of the site. A different infrastructure will be more important.

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