Last night as I tried to get to sleep I started thinking about commemoration. This is something that we have covered in my MA course but, I must admit, not one of the most memorable topics (ironic). What actually prompted last night’s ponderment was the relentless onslaught of material about the Titanic lately.
If you live in the UK, you will no doubt be aware of the centenary of the fateful ocean liner, maybe you have noticed the range of tv programmes on the topic, including the new mini-series from the makers of Downton Abbey, creatively titled Titanic.
If you live in Northern Ireland and particularly Belfast, the exposure to Titanic is virtually inescapable. The Titanic is everywhere!
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood as a Titanic hater, I was (and still am) all for the new state-of-the-art Titanic visitor experience centre in Belfast. I once went to the most amazing Titanic Experience in Orlando, Florida that was truly incredible and have since wondered why Belfast, the birthplace of the most famous ship in history, did not offer something similar. As an aspiring historian, I think it’s crucial to remember the past. Northern Ireland is very good at remembering the past but that memory is painfully selective. So the long-awaited Titanic exhibition not only represents a recognition of the cultural value of the most famous ship in the world but also contributes to a shared, collective memory of the past. The centre opens this weekend and, although extortionately priced, I will definitely be going along to see ‘history come alive’ in the near future.
No, it is not commemorating the event that nags me. It is the fact that I can no longer turn on the tv, drive to town, buy a packet of crisps or check Facebook without being visually assaulted by references to the Titanic. It feels like everyone is jumping on the Titanic bandwagon to cash in on the centenary. Do we really want to jump on this particular bandwagon?
Maybe its just the nature of the event we’re remembering that makes me feel so uneasy. There are plenty of commemorations with particular resonances, Remembrance Day for example. Even the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the world respected only last year. But those are different. Yes, lives were still lost but they were lost as a result of aggression, acts of evil and warfare. The tragedy of the Titanic was not a terrorist attack or a political statement, but simply an awful accident. The lives that were lost onboard were not martyrs or soldiers but ordinary men and women. Should we remember them differently?
I can’t help but think, when I consider the money now being made on this event, about the life span of tragedy. When does it transition from personal loss to a lucrative opportunity? When the last survivor passes away? When there is no one alive who was alive at the time?
When does such a loss stop being emotional and become historical?
I wonder when the tragedies of my lifetime will become commercial enterprises for future generations.