“Titanic’s story is about the people,” says my taxi driver.
It’s quite a firm reaction to my off-the-cuff remark that I was at TITANICa: The People’s Story, and to prove his point, I’m instructed to open the glove box and take out the book he’s reading.
I pull out Titanic Survivor; the autobiography of Violet Jessop, stewardess and Titanic survivor. “The greatest film about Titanic never made”, says driver Paul, shaking his head.
It’s a perfect example of how the stories of the people behind the ship are as enduring and timely as ever. With the centenary this year, and the opening of the spectacular bells-and-whistles, touchscreens-and-replicas , it’s easy to focus on the ship; the scale, the construction, the materials.
What TITANICa does is look at the men behind the machines; their accomplishments, their lifestyles, their stories.
These are told in the manner they so perfected in the ; with live actors in costume. Coal miners talk shop with Thomas Andrews in the coal yard, riveters tell us how they’ll eventually go deaf from the pounding volume of their work; carpenters repair luggage destined for emigrant voyage in their workshop.
It’s a thrilling way to experience the era itself; sitting by a turf fire in a teeny 1884 house lifted from East Belfast; seeing a Victorian press print a Titanic launch ticket; even watching silent movies in the Picture House.
It was the riveter’s stories of the daily realities of the shipyard that stayed with me. How they were paid per rivet. How the foreman would mark the worker’s cards with the time they left and returned from the toilet. How the first fatal accident on the Titanic build was a 15 year-old climber boy.
My guide in the next door, Ken, shares another theory for the continued fascination with the Titanic story, 100 years on. The combination of the well-known personalities on board (including some of the wealthiest people on the planet) and the advance of communications enabling newspapers to cover stories the next day, gave the event an edge of popular culture which our modern celebrity culture echoes today.
Surrounded by over 500 artefacts from the era, Ken sets the scene. Belfast had the biggest in the world, and was industry leader for what was then a cutting-edge industry (it was the Apple or Mercedes-Benz of its day). This was all despite the fact that the region had no coal, iron or steel resources.
“What Belfast did have, was skill, ambition and pride in its work,” counters Ken.
He points to a photo of Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff with partners W.H. Wilson and William Pirrie; their confidence as sharp as their suits and the trim of their moustaches.
The concept plans for the ship from 1909 are nose-pressed-against-glass fascinating. Thomas Andrews’ signature lies in the bottom left. What especially caught my eye was what has to be one of the first ocean travel mood boards!
Next are the original ink-and-paper plans, lines and tiny numbers carefully hand-drawn. Ken reminds me that the whole ship was essentially built by hand, and I think of the riveter and his tales of loosing fingers.
Examples of first, second and third class plates found in the wreck lie behind glass. I’m confused that the first class plate seems the plainest of the three in pure white, until Ken explains that the gold leaf that would have adorned it is eroded.
A shirt from third class passenger William Allen, torn at the sleeve and re-hemmed, illustrates the poverty and how little some third class passengers would have brought with them on their new life.
Another third class passenger, Rosa Abbot, was the only woman to be pulled alive from the icy waters. A photo of her, resilient in stance and grief (both her sons died in the sinking) stands in the museum, with a message on the reverse to a Mrs Lessman, a passenger on the Carpathia.
The centre of the exhibition is a model of the ship with tiny figurines representing every person on board. Separated by class and crew, and by those who survived and didn’t, it illustrates in terrible simplicity the number of lost souls.
Such was the shock in Belfast after the sinking, Ken tells me it took over a generation for Titanic to be spoken about again.
“Like in any great story, there is tragedy”, says taxi driver Paul.
The point is; it’s a story that deserves to be told.