A new bridge offers visitors incredible views of the ship and guides them to the reception area

HMS Caroline, Belfast

Alan Freeburn, 01.09.2018
The visitor experience has been enhanced by the restoration of the Pump House that sits next to this historically significant warship, says Alan Freeburn
HMS Caroline is berthed at Alexandra Dock in Belfast's bustling Titanic Quarter. Given its location, it's no surprise that the first world war C-class light cruiser is dwarfed by all things Titanic surrounding it, including the Titanic Belfast, the Titanic Hotel and Titanic Studios. 

Built and launched in 1914 at Cammell Lairds Shipyard, Birkenhead, Caroline was decommissioned in March 2011 as the second oldest ship in Royal Navy service. The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) then took over responsibility of the ageing vessel, and essential repairs and conservation were carried out with the help of an £11.5m Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

It is fitting that the ship has remained in Belfast as it spent most of its service in the city. In 1924, the ship was rescued from the breakers yard by the prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, who persuaded the British government to establish an Ulster division of the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve (also known as the "Wavy Navy").

Caroline was moved from Portsmouth to Belfast, where it became a drill ship, and has remained ever since. It survived near misses in the Belfast Blitz of April/May 1941 when it was the base depot ship for an anti-U-boat flotilla, and was relatively unscathed by Irish Republican attacks in the 1970s.

Restoration work allowed Caroline to open as a museum ship for the first time in June 2016 to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, of which it is the only surviving ship. But Caroline spent the following winter laid up in the nearby Harland and Wolff dry dock, where final repairs, cleaning and painting under the waterline could be carried out.

The ship reopened again in 2017, this time facing the opposite direction and with an innovative, permanent mooring system to Alexandra Dock (itself a scheduled ancient monument) that prevents excessive movement with the tides and ensures visitor comfort and safety.

At this point, the visitor experience was limited to the ship and the Battle of Jutland. The visitor journey used to begin on board with an impressive audiovisual recreation of the battle and accompanying panels and interactives that offered further opportunity to discover more about the opposing fleets, the admirals and the decisions they made during the war engagement. A self-led tour of the restored decks followed through the living quarters, mess deck and kitchens, before exiting through the gift shop.

Sailing back in time

With the opening of the restored Pump House and other final improvements being completed earlier this year, Alexandra Dock has been given a new lease of life. The site is easier on the eye and more family-friendly than before.

On arrival, visitors are welcomed with an unrestricted view of the ship and panoramic scenes of Belfast Harbour and Lough. The temporary wire fences and construction materials that were present have made way for picnic tables and a nautical-themed children's playground - a perfect opportunity for families who have travelled from afar to stretch their legs, have a packed lunch and take in the scale of the ship.  

A bridge across the basin in front of the bow of the ship provides not only the perfect photo opportunity, but also guides visitors towards the new reception and galleries in the Pump House. The engines, gears and machinery that have been left in situ in the new reception hall should dispel any lingering doubt that this was once a thriving industrial site. With admission fees and entry tickets exchanged, visitors are directed to the new galleries on their right.

They head down a gently sloping ramp into a bright and spacious room, where Caroline's life is told in depth on text and photographic panels, and illustrated through objects on display.

For those with little or no interest in reading about Caroline's service in the far east during the inter-war period, or for those eager to get onto the ship, the major events and dates in the ship's history are outlined in a timeline that stretches the length of the room and can be easily read in minutes. With suspended lighting and a raised walkway and handrail above the timeline, it is easy to forget that you are still firmly on dry land and not on the ship itself.

All aboard

At this point, visitors are reminded why Caroline is berthed in Belfast. The panels outline how  the ship came to the city and its role from 1924 to when it was decommissioned in 2011. The challenges that were overcome in the subsequent restoration as a museum ship are also revealed.

The second room of the Pump House encourages visitors to "Meet Caroline's People". The tone of the text is lighter and written in the first person to illuminate the stories of those who worked on board. The objects on display in this room are personal effects such as postcards, medals, diaries and photos of the crew and the ship's mascots. These items are designed to illustrate the personality of the ship and its crew.

Herein lies the strength of the galleries in the Pump House - the items on display are authentic, unlike many of the replica furnishings on the ship, and are donated by former crew members, Wrens and officers. It shows that Caroline, although run by the NMRN in Portsmouth, is still active in the local community, giving them ownership of the content and a platform to tell their story.

The opening of the Pump House has placed Caroline firmly within the context of its mooring in Belfast. It provides a dedicated display space for objects and stories outside of the Battle of Jutland narrative that is told and represented on the ship. Caroline and the Pump House now offer a more rounded and family-orientated day out.

The new galleries in the Pump House are a welcome addition, enabling visitors to choose their level of introduction before making their way to the ship, where they can explore the restored decks with a simple yet effective "point and click" audioguide.

As if walking in the footsteps of a first world war sailor wasn't enough, the use of technology and interactives in the on-board signal and torpedo "schools" enhance the overall experience. They also provide an opportunity to delve deeper into not only Caroline's history, but also that of the thousands of men and women who served on board the vessel since 1914.

The Titanic Quarter continues to be developed and Caroline is sure to benefit from the recent completion of Belfast's Maritime Mile, a waterfront trail that connects the ship with all things nautical along both banks of the mouth of the River Lagan, from the restored lighthouse, the Great Light, to the public artwork, the Big Fish.

Alan Freeburn is the learning and collections officer at the Northern Ireland War Memorial, Belfast.

HMS Caroline will host an evening social event at this year's Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Belfast (8-10 November).

Project data

  • Cost £11.5m
  • Main funders National Museum of the Royal Navy; National Heritage Memorial Fund; the Heritage Lottery Fund; Tourism NI; Department for the Economy
  • Architect Consarc Conservation
  • Exhibition design Petrichor
  • Graphic design Bivouac
  • Interpretation Petrichor
  • AV Fusion
  • Lighting Caldwell Consulting
  • Display cases Archa
  • Fit-out contractor The Hub
  • Structural, civil & marine engineer RPS Consulting Engineers
  • Landscape architect Park Hood 
  • Main contractor ship Blu Marine Building restoration and site works Tracey Bros
  • Project manager Artelia UK
  • Admission Free entry for Museums Association members

Focus on: Interpretation

Interpreting a 100-year-old heritage asset, the HMS Caroline, with multiple layers of history presented many challenges. After exhaustive research, the approach that was ultimately taken balances preservation and reconstruction.

Some of the ship's interior spaces have been preserved and stabilised, such as the Engine Rooms, where Caroline's original Parsons turbines can be seen exactly as they were found. Other areas have been brought back to their 1916 appearance, including the Captain's Quarters, Marines' Mess and Bridge to demonstrate what life was like for the ship's company during the first world war.

The interpretation on board is a mixture of historic and modern interactive spaces where visitors can get hands-on and discover more about the ship.

The experience begins with an immersive AV presentation, which places visitors at the heart of the Battle of Jutland in which Caroline fought. Beyond this, the journey is self-led using a handheld audioguide, providing visitors with ample opportunity to explore the ship on their own terms.

Our new dockside visitor centre, which opened earlier this year, complements the interpretation on the ship by providing a space to showcase original artefacts relating to the ship's history. The galleries in the visitor centre help to set the tone for the remainder of the visit, which takes place on board.

We hope that all of the work that has been carried out over the past few years will help HMS Caroline survive and thrive in its new role, and delight visitors for another 100 years.

Victoria Millar is the curator of HMS Caroline, Belfast