Iron Island: The SS Great Britain Refloated

An article by Tim Bryan, Director of the Brunel Institute, SS Great Britain, Bristol

The summer of 2020 should have been a time of celebration for the SS Great Britain Trust in Bristol, marking the 50th anniversary of the Victorian steamship’s return to the city where it was built. Of course, the global pandemic meant that many events and activities were much reduced, and although visitors were able to return after the first UK national lockdown, many of the larger activities planned were postponed.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s pioneering steamship the SS Great Britain now sits in the dry dock where it was launched in 1843 in an airconditioned environment designed to conserve the fragile iron hull for the future, and so has not been afloat since its rescue from the Falklands Islands in 1970. In 2021 however, the Trust embarked on an exciting and inspiring project to surround the ship’s hull with the sights, sounds and movement of the living sea for the first time for more than half a century.

Visitors who descended through the glass sea above into the dry dock to walk around the hull of the historic ship were able to experience and immerse themselves in ‘Iron Island’, a multisensory experience that featured animation, evocative lighting and sound design in a wraparound digital theatre that was projected on the dock walls and ship’s bow and hull created by composer Joe Acheson and digital specialists Limbic Theatre.

Filling the dry dock with the energy of the world’s oceans, the experience vividly brought to life the story of global migration through a poem composed by Saili Katebe, with whom the Trust had already worked on a number of cultural and community projects. The poet created a spoken word digital voyage to feature within the installation working closely with the curatorial team at the Trust’s Brunel Institute, digging into the archives and taking great inspiration from the diaries of passengers who had travelled on the ship in the nineteenth century, and their stories of new beginnings, risks and perseverance.

The famous steamship carried thousands of migrants from Britain to Australia and Saili’s poem formed part of a three-act multisensory experience taking visitors on a journey through departure, storm and icefields, with the spoken word element highlighting the bravery that came with uprooting your life in search of a new future, a theme that surely resonates strongly in the contemporary world. As Kate Rambridge, the Trust’s Head of Interpretation argued, although the SS Great Britain will never sail again, ‘digital multimedia can bring the sea back to the ship and show how she performed in that element – so audiences can see her, once again, as resilient, graceful and dynamic’.

The 6-week digital installation proved to be a huge hit with visitors and the powerful combination of digital projection, soundscapes and the spoken word evoked powerful emotions amongst many who experienced it. Creative and technical challenges were both experienced and resolved during the project, and Iron Island has been an inspirational testbed for more ambitious digital experiences that the Trust plans for in the future.

While video can’t truly recreate the ‘wow’ factor Iron Island gave audiences, a flavour of what it was like can be seen here.

For more information about the project see: https://www.ssgreatbritain.org/iron-island-awards/