She was fine when she left here – The Titanic museum and its implications for Battle School

Walking along the River Lagan to the Titanic Belfast, there’s a sign advertising something or other somewhere along the way that reads: “She was fine when she left here.” An allusion to the incredible feat of engineering proudly accomplished in Belfast, as well as to the Titanic’s deadly fate, it belied the fact that not all was fine in Belfast during the construction of the Titanic, and not just because of the dearth of lifeboats aboard. The museum itself presented a more nuanced exploration of the Titanic. As we develop an interactive application to help students learn about the Titanic and their own hypothetical chances for survival had they been aboard, we should look to the Titanic Belfast for inspiration.

After buying a ticket, visitors to the museum pose for a photograph with old-timey luggage and props, indicating that you are about to enjoy what otherwise is a rather macabre topic (~1,500 deaths). People like to have fun, after all, and students in particular are more likely to buy-in to a topic if they are enjoying it, or at least interacting with it (not every topic lends itself to fun). The opening exhibit is well-placed, a discussion of the history of tribal and religious conflicts between protestants and catholics, British and Irish, unionists and republicans, putting the Titanic and Belfast in an important social and political context. Although somewhat perfunctory, it would be entirely inappropriate for the Northern Irish museum to skirt this topic that the throngs of tourists may have otherwise never have learned of, which for hundreds of years has torn apart the region in which the Titanic was built.

The bulk of the museum is dedicated to the design, regality, and rediscovery of the Titanic. Although at times seeming to gloss over the death of hundreds of third class passengers (even the china in third class was so nice!), somewhere along the way there is a rather haunting, interactive exhibit discussing the horrible working conditions of those that built the ship, many of whom died on the job. The museum ends with an exhibit on the surrounding oceans and marine biology, along with a call to action to protect the environment and local habitats.

Titanic Belfast is an example of the fact that even when you are learning about a famous passenger-boat that sank, you are (or should be) learning about so much more. How can the strengths of the museum (past and future social context, interactivity, multidisciplinary approach) be applied to our survival prediction app? More generally, how will Battle School help ensure that instead of learning myopically and passively, students are pushed to interact with and understand the historical context (more often than not involving heartbreaking tragedy) of a given topic? How will Battle School inspire the student to consider historical and present context (i.e. social & economic injustice, environmental disaster) to critically evaluate a topic, inform their priorities, and achieve their goals?

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