When we think of historic shipwrecks, the Titanic is typically the first that springs to mind. The Titanic Belfast experience, which opened last year, lured 800,000 visitors its first year. But this Irish attraction is not the only exhibition devoted to drama on the high seas. Here's a look at three of the best, including Titanic Belfast.
Mary Rose Museum: Portsmouth, England
After spending more than 400 years below the surface of the Solent and three more decades under preservation, the Mary Rose is finally ready for her closeup. A new $41.5 million museum opened at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in May to display Henry VIII's naval flagship, marking its 21st century debut.
The Mary Rose sank off the southern coast of England on July 19, 1545, while sailing out to confront a French fleet. About half the ship survived the centuries and remains sequestered in a temperature-controlled chamber. In four years, the walls will come down, but for now, visitors can peer through windows for tantalizing views of her remaining flank. (If you want to tread the decks of a historic battleship, board the beautifully restored HMS Victory, which Lord Nelson was commanding when he died in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; it's docked just yards from the Mary Rose).
Even without the presence of the Mary Rose, the new museum could stand alone as a Tudor-era time capsule. Thousands of artifacts found within the ship's wreckage are on show, including countless cannons and cannonballs, a hoard of long bows and enough daggers and swords to "prop" up the inevitable next Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
Video clips re-create scenes from the Mary Rose, including a sailor loading a cannon and a ship's surgeon treating a man's wounded arm (not for the squeamish). A video game encourages kids to try their hand at shooting ships on the horizon.
Information: visitengland.com, visitbritain.com, visitportsmouth.co.uk
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Vasa Museum: Stockholm, Sweden
The Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor on Aug. 10, 1628, has risen like a phoenix from the waves. Dominating the museum's interior in a dry-dock berth, the ship appears as jaw-droppingly impressive as it must have been while straining at its ropes in port nearly 400 years ago.
Approximately 150 people, including crewmen and their family members, were on board that summer day. It was supposed to be a triumphant, celebratory sailing, displaying the might of the Swedish navy and the talent of the craftsmen who had adorned the ship with painted carvings of knights and cherubs. But after traversing just 1,400 yards, the ship tilted precariously to one side. Water rushed in through the gun ports and the ship sank.
The museum examines every facet of the Vasa, from the top-heavy design that led to the tragedy to its remarkable resurrection. There's a diving bell that kids can crawl inside to get a taste of what the men who salvaged the cannons in the mid-17th century would have experienced, and an intimidating 220-pound diving suit, which divers wore when working to raise the rest of the ship in 1961, encased behind glass like some relic of space exploration.
More poignant relics, and reliquaries, reside on the museum's lower levels. The bones of the victims, and the items found with them, offer mysterious clues to their identity. There's a hunchbacked teenage girl carrying copper coins and a key; a middle-aged man, possibly a retired captain, who wore a high-quality blue wool jacket, but suffered from decaying teeth, deformed feet and a broken leg that never properly healed; and a sailor, about 35 years old, who was found trapped under a cannon. Wax facial reconstructions bring a few lost souls eerily to life.
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Titanic Belfast: Belfast, Northern Ireland
While there are many Titanic museums and exhibitions around the world, the newest and perhaps most visually spectacular visitor experience is the Titanic Belfast. Encompassing nine galleries, it's housed in a glinting, multiprowed monument that evokes the size and scale of the Titanic itself, which sank on April 15, 1912.
Titanic Belfast is located on Queen's Island, better known today as "the Titanic Quarter," where the vessel was built. You won't find a permanent display of artifacts here, but the story of the Titanic is well told through high-tech gadgetry, including a computer-generated tour of every level of the ship and a six-seat minicar that transports you through a re-creation of the 20th century shipyard.
There's a large-scale model of the Titanic and all three classes of cabins, and a re-creation of the promenade deck, where you can look out across the harbor. You can also listen to audio recordings of survivors reliving their harrowing escape and view haunting footage of the Titanic more than 12,000 feet below the sea, although the monitors, set under a glass floor, seem to put the wreckage tantalizingly within reach.