There’s no ship quite like HMS Belfast

Picture2.pngAs you navigate the alleys surrounding London Bridge tube station and emerge onto the banks of the Thames, you are met with a compelling sight. On the northern bank, The Monument to the Great Fire of London peeks out amongst the looming megastructures of the City, while to the right sits the imposing Tower of London with its eponymous bridge. However it is the HMS Belfast, through its disruptive camouflage, that demands attention in the foreground.

From this vantage point a plethora of temporalities, histories, and narratives combine and collide in front of you; elements of Britain’s past and present, stretching from the early 11th century to the modern day, are displayed in a minute geographic area. Embedded within each landmark and space are rich connections that interweave to create landscapes of heritage. But how exactly are these heritages conveyed to visitors? This account focuses on the HMS Belfast, and how this floating museum articulates its eventful past to the thousands who embark it every year.

Gun Turret Experience

… the shipmate continues and mentions each gun which illuminate in turn, before an order from the captain is barked over the intercom above my head. Heads suddenly turn, as if aware of a new axis of engagement – few had looked behind them up to this point. A heartbeat can be heard all around as the central turret begins to raise in harmony with the co-ordinates emanating from the speaker above. The heartbeat quickens, the gun lowers, the order to fire is given. Smoke erupts and the metal floor vibrates beneath our feet as twice an explosive noise is heard. While never truly feeling dangerous, the combined attack on the senses renders the experience both exciting and effective.

Picture1.pngAs the most infamous engagement of the HMS Belfast’s career, it’s unsurprising to see an immersive element of the ship’s assemblage dedicated to the Battle of North Cape. This area explicitly seeks to embody visitor experience via sensory interaction and performance. Visitors can observably react to sensual stimuli; the smell of smoke was frequently commented on, and people were visibly shocked by the vibrating floor and explosive noises. These examples can be considered symptomatic of internal and external reactions, and emphasise the effectiveness of sensual engagement in conveying a heritage narrative. However, while some seemed enthralled by the experience, others left almost immediately. There is clearly a wide range of affective capacity in this assemblage, and an evident relationship of co-production between body and space. Moreover, the experience in the turret depended on how many other bodies filled the space. When the turret was full, there was a more vivid sense of the cramping and claustrophobia mentioned in the voiceover, while when it was empty, this comment fell flat. Affect and the heritage narrative of this space can, therefore, be entirely dependent on the bodies inhabiting the space, and how they do or do not circulate, transmit and conduct affect to other bodies and the tangible space itself.

Boiler Room

As I finally enter the space having navigated silent ladders and passageways, I am immediately struck with the feeling that I have been here before. I haven’t, of course, yet this space resonates more with me than any other on the ship. Images are conjured in my head of the metal walkways of Star Wars, or the cramped interior of (sub)marine vessels in The Hunt for Red October or Das Boot. These triggered representations render this space familiar and enticing – moving down thin walkways, squeezing past pipes and hearing steam escaping over the audio adds to the sense of role-play, as if I’m a character in one of these films…

Picture3.pngWhile the role of embodied sensory experience is vital in this space, it is important to discuss the role of memory. Informed by my own experiences of war-time media and popular culture representations the space felt familiar, which inevitably informed my own reaction to it. It can be said that my response was a result of drawing on memories already within me, or my body’s own ‘geo-historicity.’ As a result, the affective capacity of the boiler room is entirely dependent on recollections of representations already within a body, which trigger affective responses, feelings, atmospheres and sensations. Re-manifesting prior senses and reactions, when done effectively, can be instrumental in conjuring new emotional responses within a body in order to feel the heritage being displayed.

Through this account, I sought to convey a sense of the affective capacity of the HMS Belfast, and to conclude, I consider this capacity vast. Whether via embodied responses to lighting, sounds, and smells, or physical reactions to vibrating floors and cramped interiors, every element of the Belfast is engaging and instrumental in communicating the ship’s rich heritage.

It is claimed that there has been no ship quite like the HMS Belfast; perhaps today we can say there is no museum quite like it either…

Written by Harry Davenport

All images by Harry Davenport ©


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