The jets dowsing the Mary Rose in polyethylene glycol have finally been shut off. As work begins on drying her timbers, the finishing touches have just been made to a new state-of-the-art museum showcasing the former pride of Henry VIII’s King’s Ships. Matthew Symonds was given a sneak preview of the custom-built display space for a unique Tudor time capsule at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
This is a dark museum. There is no natural light, and while the display cases provide oases of illumination, away from them a sense of gloom pervades. Although the darkness is far from complete, the effect is powerful, at times almost disorientating, and entirely intentional. It is partly determined by the fragile, photosensitive nature of many of the unique Tudor artefacts on display, but owes as much to a desire to evoke the wooden world these objects belonged to.
When the Mary Rose sailed from Portsmouth to engage a French invasion fleet in July 1545, up to 700 men were crammed on board. They prepared for battle in a close, dark, claustrophobic space. Rather than stripping the artefacts from this environment and displaying them in a sterile repository, the new museum takes pains to convey a sense of life below deck. It also, by refusing to shy away from the fact that by modern standards the Mary Rose constitutes a war grave, captures the atmosphere of a tomb.
The new museum lies within Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, alongside such famous vessels as HMS Warrior – the first iron-hulled warship – and HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship and the Rose’s neighbour. Although determined by the location of the dry dock where the Mary Rose was deposited after she was salvaged – and which she still occupies – the site of the museum is fitting. Historical documents record that the Mary Rose was built on mudflats outside the Tudor shipyard. Superimposing archive maps showing the mudflats over the modern street plan reveals that the ship’s final resting place lies in the area where her keel was first laid.
The museum itself focuses on the events of a single day: 19 July 1545, when, after 34 years service, the Mary Rose foundered during the opening moments of a naval engagement. Fully equipped for war, the old warrior took hundreds of lives and thousands of artefacts with her. Once underwater any ironwork slowly corroded, but fragile organic objects were preserved in the Solent silts. As well as a sizable chunk of the ship herself, the breathtaking collection ranges from wooden gun carriages to tiny pocket sundials. Meticulous recording by the divers who excavated the wreck means that the location of many of these objects within the ship is known.
Such is the wealth of artefacts that the museum adopted a rule that only genuine objects from the Mary Rose could be displayed within its cases. The only exceptions are ghostly slivers of Perspex marking where iron blades have disintegrated. Elsewhere, a full-size reconstruction of an archer is made to stand outside the cabinet containing his skeleton. It is a powerful conceit, and one that showcases the range and quality of objects on display. The artefacts themselves are beautifully lit, and accompanied with enough text to ensure that a quizzical visitor does not feel short-changed. There is also a wealth of accompanying audio-visual material.
Objects found in trunks or more modest pouches are often displayed together, allowing some individual personalities to emerge from the shadows. The carpenter, whose cabin, tools, and personal effects survived intact is the classic example, but the barber surgeon’s fine cap and eye-watering medical kit or the Vice Admiral’s fine pewter also help breathe life into their owners. More modest are the contents of an archer’s pocket pouch, as well as wooden bowls that illiterate crew members scored with haphazard lines as markings of ownership. Such intimate everyday objects bring the human loss that accompanied the sinking of the Mary Rose into stark focus.
But what of the ship herself? A couple of casual visitors ambling around outside the new museum remembered the Mary Rose as ‘just a few planks’ and a rather poor relation to the other historic ships in the dockyard. This is unfair. The surviving portion of the Tudor warship is 32m long and 15m high, with the manner of its preservation creating a near cross-section through the vessel. Now that the jets have been turned off this can be admired with more clarity than ever before. For now, visitors must still peer through windows to see the ship while it is carefully dried out over the next few years. This delicate operation has been described as not so much the cutting edge of science as its bleeding edge. By 2016 it is hoped that visitors will have an uninterrupted view of the ship and that parts stripped out during conservation – including ladders and cabin parts – will have been reinstalled.
While no one would chose to have only half a ship to show off, the museum makes a virtue of necessity and uses the cross-section it presents to inform the display. A stylised, full-size glass mirror image of the surviving portion of the ship has been constructed opposite the actual Mary Rose. Here objects too heavy to ever return to her decks, such as the cannons and their gun carriages, occupy the positions they were in when the ship sank. Visitors can take three walks through this virtual ship. The museum is at its darkest here, and the sound of waves and the creaking of a wooden ship at sea reverberate through the air. If this all sounds a little bit Disney, the new museum display certainly recognises the power of an illusion. While the cannons appear to rest on their former carriages – which are now far too weak to bear their weight – they are really supported by cleverly placed and all but invisible platforms.
There are no panels in this part of the museum, or anything to distract you from the immersive experience of being on deck. Being able to walk through a version of the Mary Rose in this way provides a new appreciation of the size of the ship, and also vividly illustrates what a miscellany her armament was. Guns of different sizes, shapes, metal and calibre lie side by side on her decks. Some of the objects, though, are less immediately identifiable, particularly among the more specialised equipment stowed in the hold. Overall, the careful ordering of space and the range of kit on display showcases the ingenuity of Tudor sailors.
Equally ingenious, but less visible in the museum, were the pioneering divers who discovered and excavated the wreck. Their contribution is celebrated in a film that plays after visitors have toured the final gallery. It is important to remember that without the divers’ dedicated determination to locate, excavate and meticulously record the wreck, there would be literally nothing for anyone to see today. After the film visitors emerge blinking into the light – and the gift shop.
As much an experience as a display, the new Mary Rose museum offers an unparalleled glimpse of life in Tudor England. It is easy to forget just how stunning the objects recovered from the wreck are. The range and quality of artefacts on display is simply jaw dropping. The ship herself has not looked better since the 16th century, and will become ever more impressive as conservation draws to a close. This is the closest any of us can come to boarding a Tudor warship. An experience indeed.
The Mary Rose Museum can be visited as a single attraction or as part of a trip to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Single attraction tickets are available for £17 adult; £12.50 child; £16 concessions; £47 family. Tickets are currently only available for specific pre-booked time slots. They can be purchased online from www.historicdockyard.co.uk