Why Are We Interested in Titanic?

Fionola Meredith talks to her father, Titanic author Michael McCaughan, about our continued fascination with the doomed liner

My father, Michael McCaughan, has been fascinated by Titanic for as long as I can remember.

His interest began in the early 1980s, when he was a curator in maritime history and traditions at the Ulster Folk and Transport museum.

'I noticed that I was getting more enquiries about Titanic than about any other subject,' he recalls. 'I wasn't particularly interested in the ship at that time. But I became interested in why people were interested.'

In 1982 – 30 years ago this year – through the museum my father published a small booklet about Titanic, outlining the history of the building of the ship, the reasons why she was built, and the details of the ship's sinking.

The booklet featured original photographs from Harland and Wolff, as well as contemporary illustrations and pictures, newspaper accounts and extracts from the British inquiry into the loss of Titanic. I still have my own copy of the distinctive red volume, signed by Titanic survivors Eva Hart and Bert Dean.

In many ways, this little booklet was the starting point for my father's decades-long encounter with Titanic – both the actual ship of the past, which plunged to the deep at 2.20am on April 15, 1912, and the Titanic of popular imagination, which steams on to the present day.

His latest book on the subject, Titanic: Icon of an Age, will be published by Blackstaff Press on April 12, just ahead of the centenary of the sinking itself. My father is as well placed as anyone to provide an answer to the inevitable question: why are people so interested in Titanic?

'The ship is an emblematic carrier of all kinds of messages and meanings, from the sublime to the tacky,' he remarks. 'In a way, the cataclysmic sinking of Titanic is a symbol for the inevitable failure of flaunted technology, the fragility of human ambition and the transience of life.'

In 1987, the 75th anniversary of the disaster, and following the discovery of the wreck on the Atlantic ocean floor in 1985, my father curated an exhibition about the Titanic at the Ulster Folk and Transport museum.

Although intended as a temporary show, its popularity meant that it ran for 23 years, and travelled on a coast to coast tour of the United States. Part of the reason for the popularity of the exhibition was that it was more than a wall-to-wall showcase of Titanic memorabilia.

'I was trying not only to evoke the era of Titanic but also to touch visitors' sense of mortality at the disaster,' says McCaughan. 'That's what Titanic is all about – the Titanic story is fundamentally a mirror of our own mortality.

'It was an innovative exhibition for its time, using music, sound and newsreel footage. The thing that touched people most, the thing they always remarked on, was the specially-built model of the ship, displayed in a darkened room.

'We used a diorama of figures showing the people who were lost, painted grey, and those who were saved, painted in colour. It was a powerful visual representation of the scale of the loss.'

McCaughan's first major book about the ship was the Birth of the Titanic, published in 1998. 'There were loads of Titanic books on the shelves even then, but the Birth of the Titanic filled one of the few unoccupied spaces about the story – the building of the ship in Belfast. At that time, Belfast was not really part of the Titanic story, so it placed Belfast in the international Titanic narrative.'

His new book was written independently but published in association with National Museums Northern Ireland, and is his most ambitious account of the life and death of the great ship yet.

'It's a visual chronicle, drawing on the museum collections, which are now much more extensive, and it's in full colour, allowing use of contemporary material such as period advertisements, postcards, newspapers and magazines.

'There's a much greater emphasis on contextualising Titanic, not just in shipbuilding terms, but in a wider Belfast context. All of this is then set in the framework of the Edwardian age, with all its certainties and underlying anxieties.

'One of the defining characteristics of the Edwardian era was its fascination with speed and velocity: speed of social change – think of organised labour and the suffragettes – as well as speed on land, in the air and at sea. The old ways intermeshing with the advent of the new – new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. Essentially, the Edwardian age was the modern age in embryo.'

McCaughan's new book locates Titanic in the historic past, tracing her trajectory from design to disaster, but what is the meaning of Titanic today? Where can we find her, amid the requiems and rock festivals organised to mark her passing?

'Today Titanic is a glittering icon of pop culture. It is now an international brand, fusing profit, pleasure and memorialisation. The new Titanic Belfast experience, along with associated commemorations, celebrations and festivals, exactly exemplifies its contemporary cultural currency in Belfast. Titanic was built to make money, and she still continues to make money in the modern Titanic industry.'

Titanic: Icon of an Age – an Illustrated Chronicle from Design to Disaster is published by Blackstaff Press on 12th April 2012.