Like many museums throughout the country, HMS Belfast – which is maintained by the Imperial War Museum – had to close for a long period due to the pandemic.
But Belfast stayed shut a little longer than most, as the IWM decided to use the lockdown as an opportunity to move forward with a long-term renovation project. This has seen the opening of refreshed exhibition spaces, interactive features, and a new quayside bar.
Built in the Northern Irish capital in the mid-1930s, the nine-deck Town-class light cruiser played a major role in the Second World War, initially as part of the British naval blockade against Germany. Belfast later escorted the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union, and was present during the Normandy Landings.After further action in the Korean War, Belfast was due to be scrapped in 1967. But a campaign by the National Maritime Museum, the Ministry of Defence, and the IWM led to her preservation. This October marks 50 years since she was moored near Tower Bridge as a museum ship, on which sailors from her past continue to volunteer as guides.
Ahead of this anniversary, aspects of Belfast’s interior have been given a revamp, particularly on 2 Deck, which has several new displays, including a medical unit. Work has also taken place on the ship’s structure, security, and lighting – all while observing strict social-distancing rules.
‘It was a bit of a juggling act,’ said Daniel Schnable, who took up his job as Branch Operations Manager at Belfast just months before the pandemic hit. But the work has paid off. ‘We’re at the point now that visitors are able to explore, but also feel confident and safe and enjoy it as well,’ he told MHM.
For the time being, however, visits remain ticketed and strictly time-controlled. Although a wonderful experience inside, the ship does not lend itself well to social distancing, with its confined rooms and low, narrow corridors. At least the captain’s chair and that of the navigating officer, pictured here, are a safe distance apart.
‘We’re really looking forward to welcoming our visitors on board again,’ said Robert Rumble, one of the ship’s curators.
‘And to meet some of the sailors in terms of their stories, their experiences, and discover what they did during Belfast’s history,’ he added. ‘We hope it’ll be a great family day out and a great way to discover Britain’s maritime past.’
Further information HMS Belfast is open 10am-6pm Wednesday to Sunday (last entry 5pm). Tickets are available to book on the IWM website.
Text: Calum Henderson.