TITANICa

The people's story of the ill-fated liner and the workers who made her

TITANICa: The People's Story exhibition at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum is a big hit with the public, judging by the lengthy queue of eager punters. The existing exhibits in the 1900-era village have only been superficially altered to fit the theme. A cottage is now identified as belonging to a shipyard riveter, whilst the lady in period dress inside regales visitors about their work: 'A hard life, indeed!'

Silent news footage of the Titanic and her sister ships is projected onto the whitewashed wall of the picture house. It's eerily silent in the absence of a real projector or a piano player – or, indeed, a crowd willing to sit on the wooden benches – but the footage is no less impressive now than it would have been in 1912. The Britannic glides by the camera like an enormous wall of steel, a steamer setting out from Halifax to find the dead ('the last resting place').

Over at the Transport Museum, TITANICa: The Exhibition tells the story of Titanic's people, especially those who built her: a wall-sized photo of Harland & Wolff shipyard workers forms the entrance to the exhibition.

One of the men has been painted out, his face lost to history as his workmates look on from 1912, the black hull of Titanic looming behind them. We realise how vast the Titanic was, that she must have been visible from far and wide while under construction. Did people miss her when she left?

TITANICa gives unique prominence to the men who built the ship, with the social structure of the time keenly felt through an inspired display featuring, in descending order, a top hat, a bowler, and a duncher cap. it's the men who wore the dunchers who we get to know particularly well here.

Some touching artifacts from the shipyard include wooden clock blocks, the dockyard worker's names still written on them, and the cartoon of one 'Big Aggie' chalked on the back of a panel from one of Titanic's sister ships. Similarly, a huge rolled-out schematic of the ship feels most significant not for its technical mastery, but for the calculations and corrections added in pencil by one of the legions of draughtsmen.

The exhibition space works extremely well, laid out in concentric circles, its four areas each focusing on a different aspect of the Titanic story. Attempts to make the exhibition suitable for small children and those of wandering attention are effective but kept to a mimimum, with a particularly noisy 'riveting challenge' as sole concession.

More successful is the interactive light table on which plans of the Titanic can be studied, enlarged and read about, though it's unfortunate that part of its content remains inaccessible because of its too stubborn touch-screen buttons. Museums, or 'interpretive centres', may be very keen on such novelties nowadays, but it's in showing artifacts in a good, old-fashioned way that the exhibition convinces most.

That we can see so many such artifacts is down to Titanic being one of a line, of which Olympic sailed until 1935, when many of her fittings were sold at auction, and WWI intervened in Britannic's destiny (before she was fitted out, she was converted to run as a hospital ship, and those fittings remain in storage).

The stubborn myth that only the first-class passengers of such ocean liners got to enjoy luxury is easily disproven: Titanic was expected to carry mostly travellers in third-class, and the space and facilities were unrivalled even for them.

Witness also the kosher plates, labelled for milk or meat, that were provided for Jewish passengers. The White Star Line's logo on virtually everything – from dinner service and chamber pot to playing cards and deckchair rugs – would have given each passenger the assurance of being enfolded by the company's care.

Much commercial activity was generated by the disaster, now as much as ever. A display of Titanic souvenirs from down the years ranges from the tacky to the ghastly, with the salt and pepper cruets formed out of the two broken halves of the ship plumbing particular depths of tastelessness.

Posters and signed programme books from the various film productions are also on display. We see that some of survivors attended the premieres, raising the question of how fact and fiction overlap in the public mind regarding Titanic: a poster from James Cameron's movie is signed not by Leo or Kate, but by Titanic's only remaining survivor (in 1997).

The whole exhibition is perfectly summed up by its centre-piece, a large table model of the Titanic. There she is, in all her monumental glory, lights still cheerfully glowing. But her bow is disappearing under the water, and the desperate passengers who didn't make it into the few lifeboats crowd the stern.

At the corners we find figurines of all those who were on board the Titanic – first-class, second-class, third-class and crew – those who survived offset by those who drowned, under the surface of the display and painted a ghostly white. This is an ingenious and poignant display, emphasising the disgraceful way in which class determined fate, but also highlighting that the crew, which is so often forgotten in any narrative, suffered the heaviest losses of all.

For more information on TITANICa: The Exhibition visit the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum website.

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