Titanic was the pride of Belfast when she sailed away triumphantly on her maiden voyage in 1912. When the ship hit an iceberg and sank four days later -- 100 years ago today -- claiming the lives of 1,517 passengers and crew, shocked residents of Belfast mourned.
But soon enough, with the wry humor characteristic of the region, people who had worked for years to build and fit out the spectacular ship were quipping, with a shrug, "She was fine when she left here."
A guide at the gala March 31 opening of the $160 million Titanic Belfast visitors center assured us that we would hear the phrase a dozen or more times. Sure enough, we did, sometimes followed by the sly, "That's what happens when you hand her over to an English captain and a Scottish navigator!"
But there's no more need for wry defensiveness. The great ship is gone, but a century after its launch, the city has filled the void with a spectacular building that rival's Titanic's splendor and impact.
Every detail of the Titanic Belfast visitors center (including ones that may be perceived on only a subconscious level) evokes the spirit of the ship, from its design and creation to its brief, doomed voyage.
First, don't call it a museum. Nothing in the building was ever installed on Titanic. Instead, it is a highly interactive experience center, with computer-generated images and information stations supplemented by enough tangible, precise reproductions to satisfy every sense. Visitors could easily spend an entire day exploring it all.
The experience begins with the first sight of the massive building, whose four angled galleries -- appropriately called hulls -- rise from the flat vista near the Belfast Lough where the mighty Harland & Wolff shipyards once boomed. It is next to the slipways where Titanic and her sister ship Olympic (which sailed until 1935) were built; the shapes of the two ships are outlined in blue glass, visible from ground level but best experienced from one of the high windows in the center. Olympic's outline is filled with alternating strips of grass and lumber, representing crew members and passengers from each class who lived and died, allowing people to grasp the human toll in a visceral way. Titanic's outline is filled with white stones that trace the main deck plan of the ship, with benches set in the exact spots where they were placed on the ship.
The building's four hulls, plated in 3,000 raised, narrow aluminum panels, jut from a central glass tower. They are breathtaking in their resemblance to Titanic's bow, but also reference the points of the White Star Line's logo, the points of the traditional mariner's compass rose (also embedded in the floor of the airy atrium) and the iceberg that doomed the vessel. The plaza includes a subtly drawn map of the Northern Hemisphere; markers plot the course of the ship's voyage to Southampton, where she took on supplies, crew members and passengers, then to Cherbourg, France, and finally to Queenstown (now Cobh) on the southwestern tip of Ireland, where the final passengers boarded the ship.
Two other plaza features lead to near sensory overload. But if the designers of Titanic never held back from adding another furbelow, why should the designers of Titanic Belfast? And so we see a 10-by-40-foot panel of the same inch-thick steel plate used to build Titanic, with the ships' name cut out. The letters' absence honors the people who died, but visitors who miss the somber reference may also enjoy stepping into the letters for photos. The final touch is a bronze statue of a female figure named "Titanica," by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie. Her outspread arms evoke the pose of Kate Winslet in James Cameron's 1997 film.
Inside, a bright, strongly vertical open atrium houses ticket windows, cafe and a well-stocked gift shop. But no inch of space has gone unmarked by symbolism here. A rose compass in the floor is surrounded by words from the inspiring poem "Men of Belfast," and escalators evoking the gangways take visitors to nine separate galleries, stacked to evoke ship decks.
The first gallery immerses visitors in Boomtown Belfast, an industrial and shipbuilding capital, and here the magic begins. Old photographs of the city are given life with shadows of people in period clothing -- men in bowler hats, women in long dresses. As visitors enter, they delightedly recognize their own shadows mixing with the vintage silhouettes. Through the Harland & Wolff shipyard gates, they enter a room whose floor is covered by projected Titanic blueprints that reveal the intricacy of the ship's design; a game involves stepping on rivets to see how fast they can assemble the ship's steel hull.
The second gallery is among the most entrancing. It consists of a five-minute ride in a gently moving car that swoops from the top of the gigantic Arrol Gantry, under which the ships were built, past a full-sized model of Titanic's behemoth rudder and next to life-sized images of workers hammering rivets into the plates that formed the steel hull.
In the third gallery, a glazing technique across large windows shows an image of Titanic standing in its slipway; it then vanishes to show the vacant slips today. The effect is transfixing.
The fourth gallery immerses visitors in the details of the ships' fit-out, with precisely built examples of the ship's first-, second- and third-class cabins. Computer-generated images of two passengers interacting in the most luxurious cabin bring the scene to life. Those who like tactile experiences will savor the feel of the wool rugs and rich drapes and admire the craftsmanship of the gleaming paneled walls and stylish furniture.
In the fifth gallery, we meet passengers and crew members who set sail with high hopes, delighted to secure passage on the most publicized maiden voyage of all time. The highlights of this gallery are the detailed and touching final photos of the ship taken by the Rev. Francis Browne. A couple on Titanic offered to buy the young Irish Jesuit a ticket to New York, but his superior saved his life with the brusque telegram, "Get off that ship." Looking at Father Browne's famous images of Titanic's passengers and crew, and one wonders about that unidentified gentleman and that tiny child -- did they survive? We know the probable answer -- odds were not good for men of any class, and only half of all children aboard survived -- and an ominous feeling begins to build.
The sixth gallery allows us to experience a fraction of what the passengers and crew felt on the doomed ship. An off-kilter opening through which only part of the darkened exhibit is visible and a blast of chilled air leads to a room where we read the increasingly frantic Morse code messages sent from Titanic that night: "We are putting the women off in the boats," followed by, "Women and Children in boats, can not last much longer." An image of the ship is projected onto a wall of 400 replica life jackets, which could not save those in the water from icy death. Visitors took in this room in silence.
The seventh gallery features a replica of one of Titanic's 25-foot-long wooden lifeboats, built to hold 65 passengers, although few were launched full. On a large screen, actors read critical testimony from the two inquiries that were held, in England and in New York, after the disaster.
The eighth gallery includes images from films and an exhibit on myths and legends that have sprung up around Titanic. Visitors can quiz themselves on such legends as whether a cursed mummy on board doomed the ship (no).
The ninth gallery is a theater that brings us to present day. Visitors look through a glass floor to "see" Titanic as she now rests on the ocean floor, with scenes from the discovery and exploration of the wreck by Dr. Robert Ballard. The film shows the debris of the ship and the poignant objects that lie nearby -- Capt. Smith's bathtub, massive boilers wrenched free from their fittings.
Sadly, one of the most breathtaking areas of Titanic Belfast is not open to tourists. A replica of the first-class grand staircase and its glass dome are located in a banquet suite atop the building, accessible only to guests at private functions. But perhaps that whiff of exclusivity is an intentional subtle nudge to allow visitors to fully experience stratified life on Titanic right up until it hit the iceberg.
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in nearby Holywood, easily accessible by car or taxi from Belfast, offers a more humble and yet powerful approach in its TITANICa exhibit.
The museum has long offered extensive and fascinating galleries of cars, trucks, trollies and trains, as well as a folk park in which many authentic homes and shops are occupied by residents and craftspeople in period costume. Now an extensive Titanic exhibit includes artifacts, including a porthole, a gleaming soup tureen and a hot water bottle, mundane items with a gripping history.
The exhibits are rich with detail, from examples of White Star china used in first, second and third class, along with labeled china for Jewish passengers keeping kosher. A deck chair and ornately carved staircase panel from Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, show the high standard of work on White Star Line ships.
One of the most moving displays in the museum is a large model of Titanic on the sea. Each of the four corners around the ship model contains a group of figurines, representing a person in first, second or third class or in the crew. The tiny detailed, painted figures represent those who survived; the gray figures on the next level down represent those who died. It's a powerful graphic display of the worsening odds in each class, from 73 percent of the first-class passengers surviving to only 23 percent of the crew surviving.
It's only slight exaggeration to say Belfast is bursting with Titanic events. There are guided tours of Titanic's dock and pump-house (titanicsdock.com); walking tours that include the ship's drawing offices (titanicwalk.com); a boat tour of Belfast Harbour (belfast-seasafari.com); and, until May 20, a dramatic re-enactment of segments of the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry (themaclive.com). For a complete list of special events, go to ni2012.com.
If you go
Timed tickets for Titanic Belfast can be booked online at titanicbelfast.com. Adult tickets booked online cost about $20, with reduced prices for children, students and seniors.
Tickets to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum cost about $13 for adults, with reduced prices for children. They can be bought at the ticket office; for more information, go to nmni.com.