Helen Bonser-Wilton. © Chris Ison

Q&A with Helen Bonser-Wilton

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 06.04.2018
Mary Rose Trust CEO on ship's new Tudor-centred marketing drive
The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth has changed its marketing strategy in a new campaign that puts a much greater emphasis on its Tudor context, positioning Henry VIII as a central figure in the ship’s story.

This new vision has been informed by two pieces of audience research that aimed to evaluate current public perceptions of the ship and shape the museum’s future creative direction. Museums Journal spoke to the Mary Rose Trust’s CEO, Helen Bonser-Wilton, about the strategy behind the museum’s new approach.

What is the thinking behind the new focus on Tudor story of the Mary Rose?

Mary Rose tells a compelling and emotional story of life in Tudor times at all levels of society, through the thousands of authentic Tudor artefacts excavated from Henry VIII’s flagship.

Previously, Mary Rose was marketed as one of a number of naval attractions at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Our new approach showcases the immersive step into Tudor times that visitors experience, focusing on the emotional connection that visitors make between the Tudor artefacts and their own experiences, using the proposition “500 years. A heartbeat away”.

The Tudor experience that we offer is unparalleled worldwide. We are positioning ourselves as a must-experience British icon – on a par with Stonehenge, the Roman Baths and the Tower of London.
What were the key findings of your recent audience research?
We found that while the Mary Rose name has high recognition, most people think of us only as a ship. Trip Advisor reviews confirm that most people come expecting to see a ship and leave completely awed by the journey into Tudor life they experience and moved by the emotional connection they feel with the crew of Mary Rose, having seen their personal possessions. We also found that using Henry VIII and the Tudors as a ‘bridge’ increased interest in visiting among target audiences, so our campaign puts Henry VIII at the centre of our story.
Will there be anything new for visitors to see this year?
Visitors always need a reason to visit, so we are doing a number of things. Firstly, the enormous stem post, pump and anchors from the ship are coming out of long term conservation and will be air-dryed in the Ship Hall. Secondly, we will be running a strong programme of live action events, including costumed performers firing up and cooking on the Tudor Galley, Tudor music and pastimes, and weapons of war.
And finally, we will be running a Lego bricks mosaic build in partnership with Bright Bricks at May half-term and over the summer holidays.  In May visitors will book a slot - £5 per person - to build a giant Lego brick mosaic of Henry VIII measuring 4m by 2m. Each Lego square that is added to the overall mosaic gradually builds the picture of Henry VIII.

Over the summer, we will be building a 12m by 3m giant Lego brick mosaic of our Cowdray engraving – the only contemporary depiction of the events of 19 July 1545 when Mary Rose sank. Again, visitors will pay £5 to build a Lego square that builds up to the giant mosaic, which we hope to complete by the end of the summer.
What are the key aims of your new approach?
Clearly, we are seeking to increase Mary Rose’s profile and brand as a must-see attraction, in the knowledge that the Tudors have a very broad market appeal, which should drive visits. But we also know that when Mary Rose thrives, other attractions and businesses in Portsmouth thrive, so we aim to have a strong positive impact on the Portsmouth visitor economy.
Portsmouth attracts a relatively low number of staying international visitors at the moment and we are also promoting Mary Rose as a world-class destination lever to bring new audiences in.