Near the yard that built the Titanic in Belfast, a giant mural pays tribute to history’s most famous ship and the 1,500 who perished on her maiden voyage in April 1912.
The city also boasts a Titanic museum, recently reopened after a £4.5mn upgrade. It displays poignant relics of the tragedy, including the violin played by band leader Wallace Hartley as the ship went down and one of only six surviving deckchairs bearing the White Star Line’s logo.
But perhaps you want a more personal connection — something that will, to quote the song from the eponymous movie, go “on and on”. If so, RMS Titanic Inc (RMST), the firm with sole rights to the wreck that has lain on the north Atlantic seabed since sinking en route to New York on April 15 more than a century ago, has you covered: crypto collectibles.
History is everywhere in Northern Ireland, from the Titanic to the Troubles — the three decades of sectarian conflict that ended 25 years ago this Easter with the Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10 1998. Preserving the past is taken seriously in a place where the future often feels out of reach.
Crypto offers a 21st-century way to keep the Titanic alive. But some see RMST’s efforts to pitch non-fungible tokens, or NFTs — a blockchain instrument used to collect digital art — as both financially uncertain and morally dubious. The company launched some NFTs last year with crypto platform Crypto.com, billing the venture as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collect these unique pieces of history”.
RMST has now teamed up with two Hong Kong-based companies — virtual asset manager Venture Smart Financial Holdings, and Artifact Labs, a firm on a self-styled mission to “preserve and connect history on the blockchain” — to enable 5,500 artefacts to be sold as tokens.
Details are scant but Artifact Labs also promises a decentralised autonomous organisation for users to participate in future Titanic initiatives, including dives to the wreck site.
“In some ways, NFTs are like the Titanic,” Robert Norton, chief executive of Verisart, a platform that verifies the authenticity of digital assets, tells me. “They were a very big thing — but they completely collapsed.” NFTs had plunged about 90 per cent in volume and value since peaking in 2021, he adds.
Should the public be able to own some kind of digital title to an artefact recovered from a wreck where so many lost their lives? Titanic Belfast, the museum, says it does not display anything from the seabed “mass grave” and only shows items found at the surface.
Tom McCluskie, a former Harland & Wolff archivist who painstakingly preserved documents from the shipyard, is emphatic in his condemnation.
“Under international law and agreements, nobody can ‘own’ any artefact removed from the wreck of the RMS Titanic, so what is the point in ‘owning’ a spurious financial interest in such an item?” he says, blasting it as “vanity-driven” and the quest to recover still more items as “grave robbing”.
Titanic Belfast is even more dismissive. “There is no substitute for seeing the original pieces in real life,” said a spokesman, calling the city’s top tourist attraction “the guardians of her [Titanic’s] truth”.
For Northern Ireland, created by the partition of Ireland a decade after the Titanic sank, preserving history and telling all sides’ truth is an enduring challenge. The region remains riven by cultural and political divides and lingering paramilitary violence, even though the decades of conflict between republicans aiming to oust UK rule and loyalists battling to keep it British have long since ended.
Crypto cannot crack that, but old-school audio and video can preserve the feelings and emotions in a tangible link to Northern Ireland’s recent past.
For that, I recommend Lost Lives, a haunting evocation of some of the 3,700 victims of the Troubles — from which its protagonists are eerily absent. And Lyra, a mesmerising film portrait of journalist Lyra McKee, shot dead by dissident republicans in 2019, painstakingly stitched together from fragments of her voice on tape and her writing.