In September, the £97 million Titanic Belfast museum was named Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction at the prestigious World Travel Awards.
The attraction was up against some stiff competition, including the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, Buckingham Palace and the Colosseum in Rome.
“I think we won because of the way we approached the story, building the different layers of the narrative, which is recognised as being very engaging.”
Commemorative and Compelling
He spoke to Blooloop about the art of creating a commemorative and compelling attraction around the world’s most famous maritime disaster.
Husbands was awarded an MBE in January 2014 in recognition of his contribution to the successful regeneration of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter and the wider city. His career in the leisure industry spans thirty years and has taken him all over the UK.
“I started off in the Rank organisation, when cinemas were very popular and very large. Then I moved into local authority work, live show work and concerts, and became a director of a concert hall and a conference centre.”
This enabled him, he says, to develop skills in hospitality management, customer service and customer engagement.
“I moved from London to Edinburgh, then to Folkestone in Kent. Then to Doncaster in Yorkshire and back down to Torquay in Devon. I then came over to Belfast to open the Belfast Waterfront as its managing director in 1997.”
Belfast Waterfront, a purpose-built conference and entertainment centre was, at that time, the largest investment in tourism in Northern Ireland at £32 million.
Husbands, who was employed by Belfast City Council, also assumed responsibility for the hundred-year-old Ulster Hall, a nine million pound refurbishment project. He also promoted and managed all the large-scale public events within the city.
“And, then, the opportunity came up for me to move back into the private sector and to take over all responsibility for the delivery of the Titanic Belfast. It has now been running for just over four and a half years, and we’re at over our three millionth visitor.”
Ever since Titanic collided with an iceberg on the night of April 14th, 1912, people all over the world have been fascinated by the tragedy and the experiences of those involved. But, why does the doomed ship’s story continue to resonate over 100 years after the event itself?
“First and foremost, it’s a personal story that people can identify with, ” he says. “It’s captured the imagination, rather regrettably, because it concerns a loss of life. The fact it sank on its first journey has, I think, that tragic romance around it. There has been a film, up to this point, pretty much every decade.
“It’s always on the educational syllabuses in countries right across the world, so there’s always that legacy that people and children are working with the story, so when they become adults they become even more interested.
“But, I think it’s the personal stories – the heroes, the villains, why it went down – that fascinate people, and the fact science and technology is still trying to understand what were the pressures around the ship’s journey, what were the pressures on the individuals, and what happened not only to the 1500 people that lost their lives, but also the other ones that survived.
“And, there are so many different ways of telling the story: I suppose that’s what we try and do here in Titanic Belfast.”
A Positive Platform for Belfast
The project was conceived in 2000 when the city and the National Tourism Agency began to discuss the prospect of a project that would be a positive platform for Belfast.
“Belfast was coming into a peace process that was beginning to get bedded in, and they wanted to find a tourism project that would do a number of things: that would create an international platform so that Belfast could talk about itself in a positive light; one that would develop a new kind of international tourist that the City hadn’t previously had, and to use it as an anchor project for the economic regeneration of the city.”
It took time, because it was a complex issue. The building of the Titanic and the Harland and Wolff shipyard’s story carried political baggage, representing as it did the very different communities within Northern Ireland.
“It took probably eight or nine years for the gestation period, and for the city to realise that it had a brand in Titanic that is, apparently, second only to Coca Cola in terms of brand recognition. A brand worth investing in that would be able to align itself to Belfast while affording the opportunity to tell the story in a positive way, while also commemorating those that lost their lives.”
Agreement was finally reached in 2008. The decision was made to open the attraction on 31st March 2012, just before the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
A Titanic Undertaking
Telling the story of the ‘unsinkable’ ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage could itself be described as titanic. The crew and passengers together represent a snapshot of society at that time with all its social complexities, and their stories are multi-layered and wide-ranging.
“It’s a nine gallery experience, although we do have a tenth gallery now, since we opened, ” explains Husbands.
“It’s over six floors. You come in towards the atrium area, which has an industrial feel; it’s an exciting and vibrant space, with cafes, restaurants, ticketing and the retail element.
“And, then, you move up through the various different floors.”
Kay Elliot Architects – Designing the Public Spaces to Assist the Story
Devon-based architects Kay Elliott were commissioned as Interior Architects for the project. They had responsibility for the quality of the visitor experience and also the wayfinding, managing the integration of the interiors and exhibits.
This included the public entrances, four storey atrium, temporary exhibit galleries, a 1, 000 seat banqueting suite/conference centre, pre-function areas, front of house, public hygiene, kitchen and VIP suite.
In order to ensure that the public spaces assisted the unfolding of the Titanic story, the company referenced elements of the ship in their designs. For example, the ticketing and visitor services area reflects the full-size plating of the ship under construction and the ticketing booths echo the timber structure of the keel blocks.
Beneath the building’s domed glass canopy, the original staircase of Titanic’s First Class accommodation has been recreated. This was developed using carefully researched record drawings and photographs.
By incorporating these elements into the public areas, the scene is set for the story of Titanic and Northern Ireland’s industrial and maritime heritage.
A Visual Experience
The first gallery presents Belfast in the 1900s as Ireland’s pre-eminent industrial city, the centre of the shipbuilding industry.
“It takes you through a street scene and into the different areas, starting to introduce characters. You’ll see them later on during the story. This really establishing a social context, ” explains Husbands. “It’s a very visual experience.”
“Then, you go into an industrial shipyard lift that takes you up through the giant Arrol Gantry into the Shipyard. This is the equivalent of a dark ride. It takes you through an actual shipyard. It gives you the sights, the smells, and shows you the conditions that the workers would have had to endure. You see the number of rivets that they made, how they made those, the small areas in which they worked. That’s an eight minute ride. After that we take you through to the launch space, which is, obviously, a period of celebration.”
Over a hundred thousand people lined the banks of the River Lagan to watch as the Titanic was launched on the 31st of May 1911.
Visitors to Titanic Belfast are taken through that event, ‘meeting’ the key characters, owners, developers and designers, before moving through to the fit-out gallery, which demonstrates the opulent grandeur of the cabins. Here, visitors see selected artefacts recovered from the ship, before moving, firstly, on board – and then through to the sinking gallery.
Voices from the Past
“This is a reflective, emotive space that tells the story of some of the individuals. You hear the voices of those people that were on the ship. They were interviewed in the 1950s, telling their own story.
“And, then, we move into the aftermath. Some of the detail from the American and British enquiries into what happened, what blame could be apportioned or allayed, and some of the rumours as to why the ship sank.”
In the next stage, visitors are taken down to an immersive theatre where they are shown the six minutes of film footage Dr. Ballard took when he discovered the wreck in 1985: another reflective interlude.
After this, firmly back in the present, visitors go to the Ocean Exploration Centre. There they learn about some of the subsequent improvements in ocean exploration and marine engineering.
“And, then, there is the tenth gallery I mentioned.”
SS Nomadic – Boarding the Last White Star Line Vessel
“We took on responsibility for the operation of the SS Nomadic. It is the last White Star line vessel in existence, and is now situated opposite Titanic Belfast. Every visitor has the opportunity to go there and see the nine million pound refurbishment of that particular heritage piece. They see the quality of the workmanship and hear some of the stories about that particular ship.”
That Titanic Belfast is such an authentic experience is due in no small part to its location – the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where it was designed and built and from where it was launched.
Visitors have access to the drawing offices where Thomas Andrews Jr., the firm’s principal architect, would have worked on his design: a visitor can sit where the draughtsmen sat, and see and feel what the space would have been like at the time.
“People want to be on the site where something happened, ” says Husbands.
“In fact, we’re opening up a new hotel in the old drawing office. You’ll actually be able to stay on the site and enhance that sense of experience.
“It is a real connection, and I think it’s not just the site that we’re on – there’s a whole Titanic story. You can go down and see Thompson’s Dock and the pump house there and you can see the SS Nomadic, and walk under shipyard cranes where the Titanic was built. It’s a very personal and emotional story for a lot of people. They often take two and a half to three hours to go round the exhibition.”
Artefacts – A Moral Stance
Among the few artefacts chosen for display is the last letter written on board. It was by Essex-born Esther Hart and her seven-year-old daughter Eva.
“Often a visitor will comment that we don’t have many artefacts of the ship. We do have a view about artefacts, and we’ve taken a moral stance, as Dr. Ballard did. We feel that the ship itself was a burial site, and therefore we don’t display anything that isn’t absolutely justified. We think it is important that we display nothing that has been plundered or looted from the ship.”
Visitors can see the actual 33 foot wide Board of Trade Plan prepared by the White Star line’s Naval Architects for the inquiry into the loss of Titanic. People sat in front of this to give their evidence. They pointed out where they were on the ship, how they moved around it and where the cuts into the hull of the ship were made.
“Artefacts are really important to us, ” says Husbands, “but they have to enhance the telling of the story.”
Investing in Keeping the Experience Fresh
Over a million pounds has been reinvested since the attraction first opened. This has gone into three of the galleries in order to keep the offering fresh. It also ensures that people have a reason to come back.
“And we’re now building up another pot of money, and we’ll look at a very significant enhancement in early 2018 for one of the galleries in particular. We’re looking at the new means of technology that we can use in order to enhance that customer experience. We can’t go into details. We’re storming it at the moment in terms of process. We take a lot of time in making sure that we’re engaging with our customers. A lot of research was done in that respect to find out what they like. Talking to the experts is important too and to those dealing with modern technology. We are trying to find new ways of telling the story.
“I think that we’ve identified the area we want to work in. It’s a question of working that through according to the budget.”
The Impact of James Cameron’s Film ‘Titanic’
Many visitors who come to Titanic Belfast have only learned about the tragedy through watching James Cameron’s epic 1997 film ‘Titanic’. Husbands is in no doubt about the movie’s impact on the attraction.
“It’s a very good thing. We had James Cameron here a couple of years ago. I remember saying to him at the time that we wouldn’t be here if the film had not been made.
“The film gives us an opportunity to go into the marketplace; it gives us new audiences.
“We were out in the Far East doing a trade mission. We talked to a group travel operator there. ‘Are you actually telling me this is a true story – that 1500 people died? she said’
“Many people’s access into the story, particularly in emerging markets, is not Belfast history or Belfast heritage, but it is the movie. So that gives us a great opportunity to find new markets. It also gives a lot of strength – the business model that we have here is sustainable.”
Titanic Belfast is almost unique among museums in telling the story of one particular event. The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth is another.
“I think that’s true, ” agrees Husbands, “And, the level of international interest we’re getting reflects that.
“Our numbers have grown very significantly this summer. We’re having a terrific year, and the growth is in the international market.
“We’re seeing a growth of around 60% both in the French and the German market. The Chinese market has exploded for us too and the American market is very strong.”
A Catalyst for Economic Regeneration
The contribution Titanic Belfast has made to the city as a regeneration project has been significant.
“I think Titanic Belfast has been the platform for a lot of the economic regeneration, certainly in terms of tourism. It was the largest investment in tourism ever in Northern Ireland at £97 million. After three years we did an economic assessment and there was also an independent study done. At that point, it had already created £127 million worth of benefit to the local economy.
“That’s fine, but I think it goes much wider than that. Titanic Quarter has developed very strongly. But also you’ll see the hotel bed stocks and hotel occupancy levels are at the highest they have ever been. That is not an accident. It’s working on the back of the success of Titanic Belfast.
“I think Titanic Belfast has also helped raise some of the levels of standards within Northern Ireland. Take the cruise ship business. The number of cruise ships before we opened was around fifteen: we’re sitting at 84 this year. I think we’re a very significant part as to why that’s the case.”
The attraction has also shone a positive light on Belfast itself
“It’s the photo piece. It’s the V.I.P. spot – whenever anybody comes to Belfast they want their photo taken in front of Titanic Belfast. That was one of the core reasons why we spent as much on the outside of the building as we spent on the inside, ” says Husbands.
“It’s a very recognisable landmark, a very iconic space.”
Images kind courtesy Titanic Belfast