The Making of Titanic Belfast: Q&A with Head of Exhibition Design James Alexander

Exhibition space

It’s the century year of the Titanic’s maiden voyage and to commemorate the glory and tragedy of the doomed ship, the world’s largest exhibit has opened in the city where it was built.

“It’s not a simple case of Belfast building a ship and the ship sinks, it’s a story about the people who built the ship.”

The Titanic Belfast was designed to tell the story not only of a ship that sank, but also of a time and place where shipbuilding was thriving and the economy healthy.

The three-dimensional space traces the growth of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the lives and times of the people who designed the Titanic and the passengers who sailed on her.

James Alexander, CEO of exhibition design consultancy Event Communications, tells designbuild-network how his team took over Edwardian Belfast and the story of the world’s most famous ocean liner, and how they created an environment that resonates with of various audiences around the world.

What prompted you to get involved in the Titanic Belfast project?

Jacques Alexander: I think the fact that it’s Titanic makes it pretty special.

I think doing something about the Titanic in Belfast, which of course is where the Titanic was built, is also quite special.

There are other Titanic exhibits that have opened recently – one in Southampton for example – but there is something to develop a Titanic story in its home town.

It was always going to be very appealing. One hundred years ago, Belfast was a very important city. In fact, it was one of the most important cities in the Commonwealth and was comparable to Liverpool and Glasgow in terms of shipbuilding.

How does this particular project differ from your previous exhibition designs?

Titanic Belfast

Event Communications recreated the interior spaces of the Titanic using modern materials. Image courtesy of Titanic Belfast.


JA: It didn’t differ that much. Our job as exhibit designers is to deliver stories and narratives – that’s what we do for a living, so in this case it was the story of Belfast and the Titanic.

How did you create a space that tells the story of the Titanic while creating a visual representation of the ocean liner?

JA: It’s called the Titanic exhibition, but it actually tells the story of Belfast as well. So we’ve wrapped a larger story around the ship, giving it a broader base of interest.

There are nine galleries and we have created a narrative in each of these galleries that unfolds chronologically, so when you enter the first gallery you enter Edwardian Belfast and the streets of the city and you continue to travel down those streets, which illustrate what it was. to be in Belfast at that time.

Then you go through the drawing offices, the shipyard, the launch, the fitting out, and then after the sinking of the Titanic we advance the timeline to the question of myths and legends and the discovery of the ship in the years 1980.

What materials did you use to mimic the original interior design?

JA: All kinds. One of the aspects of this project is that 100 years is not very long and the records of the Titanic and its sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic, all exist.

“Our job as exhibit designers is to deliver stories and narratives – that’s what we do for a living, so in this case it was the story of Belfast and the Titanic.”

So we recreated, in a number of ways, the interior spaces that include three-scale models of First Class, Second Class, and Third Class cabins, and we had enough detail to be able to do that very accurately.

We’ve also created what we call a 3D cave, which people can enter and take a journey through the Titanic, from the Boiler Rooms to the Captain’s Bridge. With all these things, we have used modern technologies and modern materials, but they are based on the reality of the designs of the first decade of the 20th century.

We don’t have a lot of collections of objects like in a museum, so we have to create immersive environments using moving and still images and we project that on a large scale to give a sense of presence. We also have a ride that takes people through the shipyard as the Titanic is built through various stages, from laying the keel through to the plating and riveting process.

Did you feel pressured while designing this exhibit, knowing the tragedy behind the Titanic and the number of lives it took?

JA: I do not think so. It was clearly a tragedy, but it is a tragedy well understood and I think a lot of things that we face can have tragic components. We worked on the Imperial War Museum, for example.

I think what we were very conscious of was making sure that when we tell the story, people engage with it emotionally, on all sorts of different levels. It’s not a simple case of Belfast building a ship and the ship sinking, it’s a story about the people who built the ship. It’s the very personal story of Belfast and if you go to the Titanic exhibition what you’ll see is a huge effort to untangle personal and human stories and that’s very, very important, because people relate to people.

We were certainly keen to get the facts right, but I wouldn’t say we were concerned because most of our clients are museums and when you work with museums you can’t go wrong.

How did you decide which elements of the ship to incorporate into your design and which individual stories to tell?

“There are nine galleries and we have created in each of these galleries a narrative that unfolds chronologically.”

JA: What we did early in the process was write a narrative for the exhibit and as that developed we made appropriate judgments about what part of the ship, or process, we wanted to highlight.

So in the ride, where we illustrate the construction process, we created part of the Arrol Gantry, which is the scaffolding that the Titanic sat on during its construction.

But, in terms of the component layout, that’s where we have reconstructions of cabins, for example, so it depended on how the narrative flowed.

How long did it take you to research the Titanic to make sure the exhibit content was fact-based?

JA: We started in 2004, so we’ve been at it for a while and of course it escalated through the design process. In Belfast there is a Titanic society which involves family members of passengers and we have spoken to these people, but we have also set up an ‘expert group’ to help us ensure that the stories that we had were factually correct.

What were the main challenges you faced during the project?

The legendary ship Titanic

The Titanic Belfast was designed to tell the story not only of a ship that sank, but also of a time and place where shipbuilding was thriving and the economy healthy.


JA: The time scale was the main challenge. Although we had been working on the project since 2004, it didn’t get the green light until 2010, so once we finally got the green light there was a lot to do. It took so long because we started by doing various feasibility studies, plus the total cost of the project is £97m and raising that kind of money took a while.

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