Did you cry during Titanic when Leo and Kate kissed?
Do you swoon at the very thought of standing on the doomed ship's grand staircase with your beloved by your side? Well, dream no more; now you can experience it for real.
At the new Titanic Belfast tourist attraction, a replica of the staircase has been created in the banqueting centre's Titanic Suite (capacity: 750, air-conditioned, complimentary WiFi) so that you too can share the, er, romance of the Titanic. Hurry, though: the centre has already taken bookings for 200 events, including 48 weddings.
Not for you? Fair enough. Embarking on the journey of marriage by evoking a ship that sank on its maiden voyage might seem an odd choice, but it merely illustrates how the story of the Titanic has taken on a life of its own over many years of retelling, or rather, reimagining.
That's the only explanation for how the centenary of a maritime disaster that left over 1500 people dead is to be, not so much marked as celebrated over in Belfast.
The opening of the Titanic Belfast attraction, which commemorates the city's shipbuilding past and gives due weight to the stories of those who died, is one thing, but it doesn't stop there. There is also a Titanic "festival"; as part of it, MTV will be staging "a dynamite night of live music" next Friday night on the shipyard slipway, while "three days of hilarious entertainment" are promised over Easter weekend, courtesy of street performers, culminating in a "Street Performance It's a Knock Out".
A little tasteless? William Neill, professor of urban planning at Aberdeen University, thinks so. He isn't convinced the memory of the dead is being treated with due respect amid the scramble for tourist pounds – and he has a point.
It's not that we should never create museums that evoke past horrors and disasters. We should and we should also accept that they can provoke a confusion of emotions. It's uncomfortable to admit, but undeniably true, that part of the draw for many of us in visiting a First World War battlefield or, for that matter, a museum about the Titanic, is the emotional experience we know we are guaranteed to have. We can immerse ourselves in it knowing the events in question are safely behind the glass screen of history.
Twenty years ago, I went to Auschwitz with a group of teenagers; in the coach on the way there, there was plenty of boisterous chat, but on the way back, after we had all witnessed the banks of suitcases, spectacles and human hair, and seen the concrete gas chambers and the chimneys that never stopped smoking, there was utter silence apart from some soft sobbing. Watching the grey fields go past, I felt faintly uncomfortable about how fascinating, as well as how moving, it had been.
The Auschwitz museum, however, serves a clear purpose: to honour those who died and serve as a warning to future generations about the dangers of extremism. The same is true of the World War One battlefields, which play host every year to thousands of schoolchildren. At least some of the visiting tourists could be accused of mawkishness – there is a fine line between appreciating the full horror of a past event and getting off on it - but curators know this. By engaging the visitor's emotions, they ensure the message hits home all the harder.
That higher purpose is what marks out such places from "disaster tourism", like bus tours of New Orleans to see the worst of Hurricane Katrina's damage. There are no real lessons to be learned here, just a ghoulish fascination to be sated.
Should all past horrors command the same degree of sensitivity? Clearly not; events within raw living memory, such as 9/11, are far more sensitive. Even so, there is no statute of limitations when it comes to respecting the memory of those who die in tragic circumstances. In the year 2101, it's unlikely the people of New York will want MTV staging a concert at Ground Zero. There is a certain tone that ought to be observed in the Titanic commemorations out of taste and respect, and for my money, an MTV concert doesn't achieve it.
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