Sharon Heal

When is a museum not a museum?

Sharon Heal, 18.01.2012
Museums Journal: blog
When it’s “the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction”.

That is the claim made by the Titanic Belfast, which I visited last week. The huge new visitor attraction is adjacent to the slipway where the Titanic was built.

It opens at the end of March and will have nine galleries telling the story of the construction of the ship, the launch and the sinking.

Original artefacts including charts and plans from the Harland and Wolff drawing offices will be on display and there will also be an interactive shipyard ride.

The city is clearly hoping for a Bilbao-effect. The shiny new building (which is designed to look like a ship’s hull but scarily resembles an iceberg) is part of the Titanic Quarter, a residential and cultural regeneration scheme in what was the shipyard area of Belfast.

Of course no ships are built there now, and tourism rules. In fact there are plans to turn the original Harland and Wolff drawing offices, which are next to the Titanic Belfast, into a boutique hotel.

Like the Big Pit in Blaenavon and Magna in Sheffield, there is something melancholy about a post-industrial visitor attraction that marks the passing of once great manufacturing centres.

Part of the reason for my trip to Belfast was to look at potential venues for the Museums Association conference. And sure enough the Titanic has lots of “banqueting and conference space”, although I’m not sure how our delegates would feel about the décor, which is themed on the interiors of the Titanic - including a replica of the liner’s grand staircase.

The marketing staff at the venue were at pains to assure us that the attraction would not be “tacky” and were also keen to say it wasn’t a museum.

I wonder how visitors will react to an attraction that walks a fine line between the disneyfication of a tragedy and dark tourism.

More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic sank and the attraction doesn’t seem clear on whether it is commemorating this catastrophe or celebrating the feat of construction that created the largest passenger steamship of the time.

For Belfast’s sake you can only hope it will somehow manage to do both.

Sharon Heal is the editor of Museums Journal

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MA Member
25.01.2012, 12:35
If a museum is somewhere that collects, cares for and makes collections accessible, I'm not sure we HAVE to have the M word in the title, as long as we have the action. Not having Museum in the name doesn't mean an organisation ISN'T collecting, caring for and making collections accessible...

And I'd always prefer to be working in a museum which attracts visitors : )

18.01.2012, 22:55
Holding a conference at a venue, which obviously doesn't want to be burdened with the name 'museum' might not be such a good idea. The 'sinking ship' theme with those in first class in an unseemly struggle for the limited number of lifeboats and those down in the engine room doomed to drown is all a bit too close to the bone in this age of austerity! Will deckchairs be supplied?