Pauline Hadaway's articles
Re-imagining Titanic, re-imaging Belfast
Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, a survivor spoke of her incredulity on deck as the tragedy unfolded: ‘It was like a play, like a drama that was being enacted for entertainment, it did not seem real.’ Others recalled the ‘fairylike’ spectacle of the stricken ship, ‘illuminated from stern to stem’, like some ‘fantastic piece of stage scenery’. According to John Wilson Foster, these kind of first hand accounts, which buzzed around the global news wires in the days and weeks following the catastrophe, suggest that the reimagining of the Titanic began almost at the very moment of her sinking, in the immediacy of personal experience, as ‘humanity shrank from a reassuring company into one’s vulnerable and frightened self’ (Foster 2002:207).
Beyond the sheer size of the ship and numbers lost, even beyond the sensational drama of her final ‘Night to Remember’, the Titanic was first committed to historical memory above all through a coincidence of timing. That so many whose lives were lost had quit their place of birth in search of better lives is poignant enough, but the significance of each personal tragedy was to be further intensified in light of the anguish and turmoil soon to follow. From history’s rear view mirror, the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage signals the beginning of the end of an age of optimism. Two years before the world descended into war, in a moral and intellectual climate already growing sceptical towards the benefits of material progress and mass politics, Titanic’s fate expressed an imminent sense of ending. The sudden destruction of this luxurious ‘floating world’ chimed with fears of social disintegration and imperial decline in an age, where moral values were increasingly shaped by the pursuit of material well being. Just as the populace thrilled to stories of manly heroics on board the sinking vessel, so, amidst a great wave of sermonizing, those attached to traditional standards of faith, deference and moral certainty found consolation amidst the wreckage of so many hopes and dreams.
From imperishable memory to urban memory
Although proposed in the immediate outpouring of grief that followed, most of the marble, brass and stone memorials, still to be seen in British towns and cities, would not be realized until after the beginning of the Great War. In that brief moment between raising subscriptions, commissioning a sculptor and finally unveiling a statue or plaque, the grief for 1,500 lost souls had been subsumed and, in a sense, universalized as part of the collective experience of an even greater social calamity. As Britain’s twentieth century wore on, through imperial decline, industrial and economic depression and military conflict, the mythology of the ‘ill starred’ Titanic slowly came to rest below the surface of everyday consciousness, consigned to the ‘dark places of psychology’ (Woolf 1919, quoted in Furedi 1992:163), now and again emerging as a cautionary tale or rebuke against hubris.
In Belfast, the city that built Titanic and where she spent the greater part of her life, a memorial was finally dedicated in 1920, a full eight years after the disaster. Originally standing at the main gates of Belfast City Hall, the statue bears a moving inscription to the ‘imperishable memory’ and ‘heroic conduct’ of the ‘gallant Belfastmen’, whose names are listed on its plinth. Its roll of honour includes Thomas Andrews, the naval architect, who designed the ship, alongside members of Harland and Wolff’s fifteen strong ‘guarantee group’ of engineers and apprentices, selected to accompany her maiden voyage. Forty years on, re-designated a traffic hazard, the memorial found shelter in the quiet of the City Hall gardens, albeit minus its bronze water fountains, which mysteriously vanished during the move. In 1959, Belfast was still building ships, which may explain the city’s diffidence towards its status as the birthplace of the world’s greatest maritime disaster.
While ships continued to be built in Belfast to the end of the twentieth century, all over Britain the industry was entering a period of terminal decline. Thousands of workers were being laid off, as what remained of Britain’s shipyards became almost entirely dependent on government subsidy. Following the 1972 collapse of Stormont and implementation of direct rule in Northern Ireland, the fate of Harland and Wolff became a matter of political concern for the British government. In the light of its historical association with Unionist ascendancy and only twelve months after the Ulster Workers Strike, the government’s 1975 decision to nationalize Harland and Wolff was fraught with conflict and complexity. In a war torn city, where ‘barbed wire spread like ivy’, Belfast’s Titanic connection offered little cause for celebration, more a sobering reminder of the political disasters, that had followed the liner’s ‘fatal Atlantic rendezvous’, beginning with the partition of Ireland and ending in the dissolution of the Northern Irish state.
Constructed in the first decade of the Troubles, between 1969 and 1974, Harland and Wolff’s giant Samson and Goliath cranes, continued to dominate Belfast’s skyline, even after the yard had launched its final ship. Announcing a preservation order in 2003, Northern Ireland Office Minister Angela Smith expressed the significance of the cranes as city landmarks in terms of their meaning within a shared heritage and identity: ‘These cranes are an essential part of our city, our roots and our culture’ (BBC News 2003). Throughout the Northern Ireland Peace Process, local politicians and planners, driven by ambitions to normalize the city, had been greatly influenced by international regeneration models, which identify personal feelings about ‘memory and identity as objects of public attention’, seeking ways of constructing ’emotional attachment to places and periods from the past’ as a means of building civic and community solidarities (Nash and Williams 2011: 100). From managing market failure to breakdowns in community cohesion, many of the challenges facing Belfast can be seen as typical of declining post-industrial cities all over the western world. However one of the city’s most singular and seemingly intractable problems remained the absence of integrated living between catholic and protestant citizens, one of the more visible outcomes of Northern Ireland’s failure to establish democratic consensus, based on a shared vision for the state. Focused on positively channelling ‘contested histories’ within and between local neighbourhoods, theories of ‘urban memories’ as signifiers of place have often translated into strategies for tackling visible signs of sectarianism, for example by replacing paramilitary murals with cultural and historical memorabilia, evoking Irish mythology or Ulster’s industrial heritage.
Given the sectarian nature of Northern Irish political life, where even at the level of imagining the future, interpretations of the past remain a determining factor, the strategy of creating a city of competing, culturally defined localities, inevitably runs the risk of reinforcing rather than resolving conflict. Where history and politics remain hotly contested, the business of identifying and interpreting personal memories and emotions requires careful management, if its objectives are to serve urban regeneration and community cohesion agendas. In contrast to the commercially driven transformation of Belfast’s war torn retail centre into a new, visitor friendly, almost ‘placeless’ city of boutique hotels, restaurants and glossy shopping malls, much recent research still identifies low patterns of interaction between working-class nationalist and loyalist communities. Meanwhile, remarkable as the city’s transformation seems to those who recall the old Belfast, contradictions between the ‘must see’ destination of the Lonely Planet guide and the increasingly worn down and forbidding aspect of many of its inner city neighbourhoods, unsettle comfortable notions of a unified city emerging into a new era of peace and prosperity.(1)
Amidst seemingly endless antagonisms between Belfast’s past and present, planners and policy makers were trying to imagine a new identity or brand for the city that would challenge negative perceptions in the market place and promote a unified vision of its transformation from fractured city locked within a troubled past to modern European capital. The rediscovery of the Victorian city as a prosperous, mercantile, maritime centre of industry and invention seemed to be driving ‘cultural regeneration’ in the Laganside, Cathedral and Queen’s Quarters. Could some latent force be discovered within Belfast’s ruined riverside landscapes, which might radiate a new spirit of historical continuity, connectivity and pride to all the citizens of Belfast? By 2003, work had begun on a community, business and tourism hub for Belfast’s derelict docklands, leading to the development of a construction project, which would ultimately lay claim to being ‘one of Europe’s largest and most exciting waterfront developments’ (Titanic Quarter 2006). Plans for the first phase of this multi million pound project were to make their public debut three years later as the centre piece of an exhibition entitled, Building the Future from the Past, shown in Belfast’s Odyssey pavilion, a millennium arena located on the city’s recently renamed Titanic Quarter. Having spent almost nine decades playing down its Titanic connections, Belfast began re-connecting to the Titanic myth around the same time it began re-imagining and realizing its post conflict future.
Remaking the Titanic myth
Interviewed for television in 2009, Millvina Dean, 87 years old and the last known Titanic survivor remarked that for most of her life nobody had demonstrated the slightest interest in the story of her rescue as a babe in arms from the deck of the sinking ship. Everything changed when the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985, a situation that provoked the rather wistful observation: ‘who expects to become famous at this age?’
Perhaps surprisingly, at a time when many of us feel less certain of our common connection to history, local concerns for revisiting and memorializing the past appear to be connecting into an emerging, world wide cultural fascination for looking backwards, often focussed on the more challenging and conflicted narratives from history. Aside from elevated notions of the ‘duty of memory’, the contemporary imagination seems increasingly haunted, indeed captivated by an impulse to revisit sites and stories of death, atrocity, mass killings and many of the more disturbing moments in human history. From Berlin’s Topographie des Terrors to Liverpool’s Museum of Slavery and the Imperial War Museum’s ‘evocative recreation of being in a trench on the Somme’, however lofty the institution or whatever the historical significance of the object of commemoration, the current vogue for ‘immersive environments’ and ‘authenticity of experience’ inevitably conjures up uncomfortable associations with the Barnum and Bailey aesthetics of ‘dark tourism’.
In the closing years of the twentieth century, as nostalgia emerged as ‘the next big thing’, the revival of popular interest, which had attended the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, exploded into the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster disaster movie, Titanic. Now, fifteen years after its spectacular first launch, the Cameron movie has itself been re-mastered and re-launched – experience it like never before in 3D – as part of an astonishing re-invention of the Titanic as a ‘global brand’ in its centenary year. Amidst a carnival of memorabilia, musical tributes, spectacular light shows, replica ships, simulations, graveyard tours, commemorative cruises, TV dramas, stage plays and countless new visitor experiences, suddenly it seems, the whole world is being invited to ‘book a place in history’, ‘become part of the journey’ and once more experience ‘the unforgettable sights, sounds and emotions of the most famous ship ever to set sail’. On her hundredth birthday, in a whirl of real and imagined history, Titanic has been re-invented and re-launched as an A list celebrity.
Re-imagining Titanic Town
Amidst all the centenary razzmatazz, Titanic Belfast has emerged as one of the most ambitious re-imaginings of the Titanic myth. Bearing the weight of local memory and history, alongside the hopes and dreams of an intricate network of public and private interests and investment, Titanic Belfast, the city’s ‘new cultural icon’, promises to deliver a ‘world class visitor experience’ to 400,000 annual visitors, of whom, up to 165,000 are expected to come from outside Northern Ireland. At a cost of £77 million and claiming to be the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction, Titanic Belfast combines a ground floor ‘welcome hall’, with a series of interpretive galleries over three floors, each ‘exploring aspects of the construction, design, sinking and legacy of the Titanic’. On the top floor, presently off limits to regular visitors, Belfast’s largest conference and reception space offers a banqueting facility capable of seating 750 people, with a life size reproduction of Titanic’s famous grand staircase as its centre-piece. Not alone the biggest and the best in the world, Titanic Belfast claims to represent the ‘definitive’ Titanic story, deriving its ‘authenticity and immediacy’ from the city’s status as the town that built Titanic, alongside its own proximity to the actual sites where Titanic and her sister ship Olympic were designed and built. Questions of authenticity extend beyond marketing exigencies, as the same historical precedents, which confer meaning on Titanic Belfast as a ‘globally recognized icon in the marketplace’ underpin the function of the building as a focus for the re-unification of the city and inspiration to ‘the next generation of Titanic thinkers’.
The emotional museum
For all the talk of ‘authenticity’, one of the most striking features of Titanic Belfast is the scarcity of authentic objects, connected either to Belfast shipbuilding or to the broader manufacturing history of the city. In her analysis of cultural-history museum practice, Valerie Casey identifies the contemporary turn away from the ‘particularity of objects’ as the primary element to convey information towards more experience orientated approaches. However, having ‘assimilated commercial strategies’, often in competition with rival tourist entertainments, Casey cautions that the ‘new museum’, with its focus on the ‘primacy of performance’, may sometimes find itself in danger of adopting manipulative strategies, which not only rob the source material of its inherent pathos and poignancy, but may substitute an interest in ‘perpetuating collective, quasi-fictional cultural memory’ for ‘the scientific rigor of historical study’ (Casey 2003).
The neglect of the original sites where Titanic was designed and built, in particular the hauntingly beautiful Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices, expresses current disdain for conservation and care of objects within museum and heritage practice. With very little to see in the way of actual objects that were built, handled or exchanged by real people in the age of Titanic, the visitor’s attention is drawn to a series of displays of early twentieth century photographs and ‘actuality’ films, which form part of the centrepiece of the opening, scenesetting galleries. Projected onto large screens, these contemporaneous films and photographs identify Edwardian Belfast as a significant centre of industry, commerce and, above all, mechanised progress and social change.
Photographs from the Welch, Hogg and W.A. Green collections provide an impressive record of the city’s social organisation and industrial might, but the pictures that speak most faithfully, are those that record, almost in passing, what visual artist and writer David Bate has described as an ‘accumulation of anecdotal detail’ expressive of ‘the ordinary things in life that epitomise existence’ (Bate 2004) Allowing the visitor to glimpse an understanding of another Belfast, these early photographs show a modernising city, in which recognizably modern people go about their business, occasionally acknowledging, sometimes performing and even submitting to the camera. This other Belfast is a place in which the technological modernity and sheer, physical dimensions of the city streets and shipyards contrast with the closed in, smallness of kitchen houses in narrow backstreets; a world where luxuries can be enjoyed, in sight and sound of children with no shoes. In one film clip, a group of people, looking like they are up from the country, push through a crowd of well heeled shoppers. Men and women walk purposefully across busy streets on their way to shops and offices. Horses and carts jostle with cars and mechanized trams for road space. Sailing ships are tied up alongside steam ships. A boy gazes out onto the Lough. Ominously, a body of troops disembarks and marches in file through the docks.
In her study of the record and survey movement, anthropologist and art historian Elizabeth Edwards charts the activities of hundreds of amateur, mostly anonymous photographers who contributed to photographic surveys of Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Exploring relationships between photography, culture and the construction of identity, Edwards links the rise of popular photography to changing concepts of leisure, mobility, and understandings of community, locality and nationality. Disseminating photographs through archives and lantern slide lectures in local libraries and museums, this amateur practice seems to challenge what are often perceived as dominant 19th century ideas of a producing elite and consuming populace. Apart from its substantial photographic legacy, the survey movement, through an articulation of museums, archives and libraries ‘as manifestations of regional and local identity and pride’, reminds us of the democratizing dynamic for self improvement and disseminating knowledge at that time. (Edwards 2012: 138-139).
Captivated by its own cleverness, infatuated by ‘innovations’ that claim to draw the visitor ‘closer to the experience’, however illusory the experience may be, the 21st century museum never fails to underestimate the power of unmediated interaction between the human imagination and the object of its interest or desire. Whether conforming to the new orthodoxy of museum ‘edutainment’ or uncertain of its own identity, as a ‘globally recognized icon in the marketplace’ and inspiration to ‘the next generation of Titanic thinkers’, Titanic Belfast has superimposed a procession of silhouetted figures – chimney sweeps, street urchins, gentlemen tipping their bowlers and ladies in Mary Poppins hats – onto each photograph and frame of film. Forcing itself between the visitor and the very photographs, which provide authentic glimpses of Edwardian Belfast life, Titanic Belfast tries to make its own pastiche Edwardiana the centre of attention. This same self conscious outlook interrupts enjoyment of the later ‘fit out’ Gallery, where visitors encounter the furnishings that decorated public rooms and accommodation on the great liners of the day, in three lovingly recreated cabins, ‘brought to life’ by computer generated characters acting out candy coated vignettes of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class passenger life.
Retreating from reality
‘Where once we built ships, now we build communities’ became a strap line for the Titanic Quarter around the launch of Titanic Belfast in spring 2012. As a building, Titanic Belfast boldly expresses local skill and craftsmanship and the continuing ambition and potential for the city to deliver complex, large scale projects. The problem lies not in a lack of ambition, but a lack of nerve, where ambition and innovation are squeezed and distorted to fit policy frameworks, ‘in which the past is seen as a comfort blanket’ (Nash and Williams 2011: 100). The story of Titanic is a compelling and glorious tragedy of hope, courage, bad luck and heroic failure, but when history and memory are re-engineered, whether in the service of conflict management, re-building communities or re-branding the city, real human experience, with all its contradictions and complexities cannot be permitted to speak on its own account.
Writing almost twenty years ago, the sociologist and cultural critic, Christopher Lasch, identified the rise of a new managerialism, ‘traffic(ing) in information and manipulate(ing) words and numbers for a living’, whose modes of living in a ‘world of abstractions and images’ both explained and reinforced ‘belief in the social construction of reality’. Articulating what he saw as an intellectual retreat not alone from ‘the common world’ all around us, but ‘from reality itself’, perhaps Lasch’s observations throw light on our contemporary love affair with the past. (Lasch 1995:20).
For all the talk about ‘building the future from the past’, are we trying to effect real, meaningful change or simply retreating into an imagined golden age? Obsessively stockpiling memories or actively trying to imagine the future? Perhaps our nostalgia is driven more by a sense of dissatisfaction with our own lives than any hope of learning lessons from history. Are we dressing up in the clothes of the past because we feel estranged from ourselves as active makers of history? History opens up exciting areas for public and political debate that could help to bring about future change, but where can this meaningful debate take place, if competing histories are closed off and managed within separate quarters, each with their own sanitised, branding, marketing or conflict management agendas?
If, for those on board the sinking ship, the confusion between what is real and imagined or the sense of being spectator to a drama, seems a credible response, in the immediacy of fear and panic, as ‘humanity shrank from a reassuring company into one’s vulnerable and frightened self’ (Foster 2002: 207), how might we explain the retreat from reality in the contemporary world?
1. Visiting the city in summer 2005, Stuart Emmrich, travel editor for the New York Times, described a bus tour, which brought him face to face with the alternative Belfast, situated just round the corner from the ‘must see’ destination of the Lonely Planet guide: ‘At one point the guide casually pointed out a 70-foot-high fence that she said ran the length of the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods and kept each side from crossing into each other’s territory. Called the Peace Wall – a name that perhaps only George Orwell could fully appreciate – it was open for just a few hours each day from Monday through Friday, when traffic could be carefully monitored. Seeing it now, on a Sunday morning, shut tight and heavily barricaded, it stood as stark a symbol as the Berlin Wall, now fallen. It was a chilling moment, one whose force caught me by surprise’. Quoted in Hadaway (2009: 26)
Bate, D. (2004) After Postmodernism, http://www.lensculture.com/bate1.html, retrieved 1st May 2012.
BBC News (2001) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/3176184.stm, retrieved 14th May 2012
Casey,V. (2003) The Museum Effect, http://www.valcasey.com/thesis/thesis_effect.html, retrieved 1st May 2012
Edwards, E (2012) The Camera as Historian, Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination 1885 – 1918. Durham and London: Duke University Press
Foster, J.W. (2002) The Age of Titanic. Dublin: Merlin Publishing.
Hadaway, P (2009) Re-imaging Belfast: B for Branding, Urban Design Journal, Issue 109, Winter 2009, pp 24-27
Hadaway, P (2013), (eds) W.J.V. Neill, M. Murray and B. Grist. Relaunching Titanic, Memory, and Marketing in the New Belfast: Routledge
Lasch, C. (1995) The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York and London: WW Norton and Company.
Nash, S and Williams, A. (2011) The Historic City, in (eds) A. Williams and A. Donald, The Lure of the City: Pluto Press, pp 98-116
Titanic Quarter (2006) Corporate Message: The Vision. About Us at Titanic Quarter. Titanic Quarter. 2006. http://www.titanic-quarter.com/about.php?ID=3. Retrieved 1st May 2012.
Woolf, V. (1919) Quoted in Frank Furedi (1992) Mythical Past, Elusive Future. London: Pluto Press
Note: A version of this text is published in Relaunching Titanic, Memory, and Marketing in the New Belfast, edited by William J.V. Neill, Michael Murray and Berna Grist, by Routledge. 2013
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