SeaCity Museum, Southampton – Review

Attraction: SeaCity Museum

Location: Southampton, UK


Date of Visit: 25th May 2012

SeaCity Museum is located at the back of Southampton Guildhall. My reason for visiting was to mark the centennial year of the sinking of the Titanic by visiting the museum’s Titanic exhibition. SeaCity does have an entire gallery dedicated to the history of the city going right back to prehistory named “Gateway to the World,” which is temporarily diverting but fails to capture the imagination. Nope, the real star of this museum is the two Titanic galleries. SeaCity knows that 99% of their visitors come to the museum with the Titanic in mind and, rather admirably, don’t try to deny it.

The ground floor houses the special exhibition space which is currently devoted to the Titanic. This particular gallery is an added bonus for those with an interest in the ship, and it will close at the end of summer 2013. I urge you to catch it before it goes.

The special exhibition focusses on “Titanic: The Legend” and is a good example of imaginative use of gallery space combined with thoughtful displays. The first eye catching attraction is a bank of television screens showing repeated loops of Titanic as portrayed on film, including the notorious Nazi propaganda movie that shows Titanic as the British Gomorrah, and the catastrophe itself as a just reckoning for the appalling lack of morals in Allied nations.

Moving on, there is a two storey high wall displaying various Titanic memorabilia. Bravo to SeaCity for having the balls to display items that many would regard as misguided at best and deeply offensive at worst. DVDs, books and commemorative crockery are on show alongside a Titanic Barbie and ‘Gin and Titonic’ icecube trays in the shapes of the liner and the iceburg that sank her. Whilst the story of the ship and the souls on board are endlessly fascinating, some of the products created by money grabbing opportunists willing to dance on a few graves for a dollar are a psychological marvel.

Next up is ther adjoining wall, on which stick figures representing every passanger aboard are divided into groups by class of ticket. If the stick man has been coloured in, the person represented survived. If left a rather sombre grey, the person was lost. If you had nervously laughed at the tacky souvenirs you’ve just seen, then this wall does a pretty efficient job of reminding the visitor of the scale of the tragedy that inspired them. It is indeed a sobering sight, but even more poignant are the portable stickmen arranged below with little lifeboats with slots waiting to be filled. Each of the figures is painted with the ticket class colour code of the diagram above and has a name and brief biography printed on the chest. The visitor must decide who to place in a lifeboat and who must stay onboard the liner to await their fate. This is sure to provoke debate amongst the families and groups of friends visiting, as it should. 100 years later, would you stick to the women and children first stance of that night or would you instead judge each case by personal merit? Would you choose for the more ‘useful’ members of society to survive and sacrifice the housewives? I absolutely applaud the willingness of SeaCity to provoke the debate. It’s a thought that will remain with you long after you arrive back home.

One of the stars of the exhibition is one of the actual ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicle) that dived the wreck to bring us back the incredibly footage that is played on loop on a screen beside it.

Moving upstairs, we reach the permanent Titanic exhibition space, “Southampton’s Titanic Story.” As a Portsmouth native, I’m ashamed to say that I was ignorant as to just how integral my neighbouring city was to the Titanic Story. Most of us know (if only from the 1997 film) that Titanic sailed from Southampton, but it was only thanks to the recent barrage of anniversary documentaries (particularly Len Goodman’s, funnily enough) that I realised just how tied together they were. SeaCity does an excellent job of remembering and displaying those ties.

First thing first, the visitor is faced with a wall literally filled with playing card sized rectangles, each representing a member of the Titanic’s crew. Each name and profession is recorded, and if a photo survives it is included. On a wall of grey, each crew member who actually lived in Southampton is highlighted in bright orange. The vast swathes of orange that indicate that circa 75% of the crew were local to Southampton are so stunning that I was taken aback. Next up, we are introduced to six local crew members in a bit more detail, including Captain Smith, Second Officer Lightoller, coal trimmer Walter Fredericks, First Class stewardess Mabel Bennett, Third Class steward Sidney Sedunary and look out Archie Jewell. We’ll be following these characters throughout the exhibition finding out more of their life on board, not knowing their fate untilt he final room.

Following on, we take a stroll through the streets on Southampton complete with black and white photos blown up to life size and audio loops of Edwardian Southampton residents discussing the ship’s imminent launch.

Reaching a larger space we learn more about the preparations involved for a transatlantic voyage on the world’s largest moving object. Items needed aboard are listed in mind boggling quantities. For a week long voyage, for instance, Titanic was armed with 45,000 napkins.

A diagram showing the size of Titanic in comparison with the museum itself drew a few gasps from fellow visitors whilst I was there, but the piece de resistance of the room is the 1:25 scale diagram of the ship’s layout, complete with touch screens that play actual contemporary footage filmed aboard Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship. And don’t forget our 6 crew members, this diagram will show you exactly where they worked.

Next up is a room that children will go nuts for. Mercifully, as a weekday, kids were nowhere to be seen and I was able to indulge my inner child. A simulator tests your ability to safely steer the ship with increasingly levels of difficulty. You have a proper ship’s wheel and you determien the speed at which the ship sails. Apparently I was a ‘natural’ and the digital captain was convinced I’d sailed before. (I have, but only a dinghy. Still, must be my Naval blood coming to the fore.) And if that wasn’t enough, kids big and small can also sovel coal into glowing boilers. Careful you don’t shovel to slowly or too enthusiastically, or alarms will ring warning you of dangerous pressure levels.

After the fun of participation, SeaCity once more makes sure you remain appropriately sombre by plunging you into a dark cinema area. Audio recordings of survivors recounting the experience (recorded about 20 years ago) play and their accounts are subtitled on screen against a watery backdrop. The memories of the survivors are ten times more emotive than anything Julian Fellowes came up with in that atrocious dramatisation. Thank Heaven’s the lights were kept dim as we listened, because more than one of us, myself included, had tears rolling down our cheeks as we heard Edith Haisman, Eva Hart and Sidney Daniels tell us what it was really like to witness a tragedy on such an enormous scale.

Sidney Sedunary, one of the crewmembers that we are following, is remembered in this room. His pocket watch is displayed, and long after the hands have rusted away, their shadows still point to 1.50am, 15th April 1912. It is an emotional punch when you realise that the clock stopped working when Sidney finally hit the water. Out of everything in this exhibition, this for me was the most important, a tangible witness to a catastrophe. I therefore question why it is placed at the back of the room, opposite the screen that draws the attention. More than half of the visitors completely missed it whilst I was there. The accompanying sign is tiny. It is such a shame that so many visitors blithely walk past this amazing piece of history because of poorly conceived layout. It was a rare misstep for SeaCity.

Moving back into well lit rooms, the next area is just as tearjerking. Southampton is mapped out in black on the white plastic floor. A red dot the size of a 10 pence piece marks the site of a Southampton house that lost a family member on board the Titanic. There are red dots everywhere. No neighbourhood was left untouched by the disaster. In one school, half of the pupils were left fatherless overnight. The walls of the room are devoted to newspaper articles reporting the disaster, with sometimes dramatically conflicting information.

The final room is one of the most imaginative museum galleries I’ve yet seen. A full size courtroom is recreated complete with jury stalls and dock. Visitors sit in the place of judges and listen to actors recreating the enquiry that followed the sinking. Photos of the men speaking are shown on screens. It is fascinating listening to actual witness statements from such people as Officer Lightoller, the surviving look out and marconi operator, and the notorious J Bruce Ismay. The questions asked, and the replies given, are sure to shock. One of my favourite features of this room is one that I didn’t use. Whilst grown ups listen in sombre silence to incriminating evidence, children who would have struggled to sit still and quietly for long enough for the loop to finish have been provided with an activity that will keep them happily busy. An ingenious (and mercifully silent) device is placed just in front of the judge’s seat. Either sharing the task with a parent or sibling, or taking one handle in each hand, a child can attempt to lower a lifeboat from the boatdeck to the water. If the handles aren’t turned evenly, the boat will tilt precariously and a red light will announce that you’ve failed. However, with a bit of team work, you can successfully lower a boat without any casualties and earn a friendly green light. As well as a welcome distraction, surrounding adults can also see how difficult it must have been to launch those boats successfully under such circumstances.

Finally, we learn the fates of the six crewmembers that have popped up regularly along the route, and the board of playing card crew biographies with Southampton residents highlighted in orange is repeated, only this time the words LOST AT SEA are emblazoned on over three quarters of the crew members pictures.

Overall, the museum is clean (well, it is new!) well lit, spacious and thoughtfully designed. The information is displayed in imaginative ways that remain poignant without ever descending into cloying sentimentality.

I have only a few gripes. If there was any air conditioning, it wasn’t switched on. SeaCity has no windows and my visit coincided with a heatwave. It was unpleasantly distracting having to contend with the odour of stale sweat as the temperatures inside the exhibition steadily rose. There wasn’t even a small fan to attempt to get the hot, heavy air circulating. There is no excuse for such an oversight in a brand new, modern museum. I visited towards the end of day, so even if the air conditioning had packed up, there had been time to try and rectify the situation.

As mentioned before, for a museum blessed with such a draw as the pocket watch, it baffles me as to why a curator would choose to hide it at the back of a darkened room.

The gift shop is small and sparse. Given time I hope that SeaCity can expand their range is souvenirs with more variety and suiting all budgets. After paying £8.50 entrance I’m less inclined to spend £20+ on the least expensive book or £5 on a pack of 10 postcards of newspaper articles.

And lastly, the bit I’m most qualified to talk about, the gallery staff.

I was pleased to note that when we entered the special exhibition, the young guy manning the area did bother to say hello. However it looked less than impressive that he was slumped on a bench reading a book. Granted, it was off-peak and quiet, but posture costs nothing. He was so engrossed in the book (that was intended for visitors, ie me and not him, to peruse) that he wouldn’t have noticed if I’d danced nude around the gallery.

Worse, the entire permanent exhibition route took at least an hour to see. I only saw one girl the entire time. She had even brought her own book with her. I first found her hiding in the cinema, and then she quietly snuck into courtroom. At no point did she talk to a visitor, or even initiate eye contact. She looked bored and she didn’t smile. I have high standards in my own work and I expect my peers to have them too. I make it a point to initiate eye contact with visitors, if only so that they know I’m around to help or answer questions. Hiding in a shadowy corner is lazy and unprofessional.

That said, I did really enjoy the museum as did my family. I give SeaCity a solid 4.5/5 and congratulate them on a museum well executed.

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