The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth - Museums Association

The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth

Dirk Bennett dives into the historic depths of the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, as its museum reopens
Dirk Bennett
Uluburun, Antikythera, Oseberg, Vasa, Titanic, Brexit – the world is fascinated by shipwrecks. Metaphors for the force of nature, helplessness in the face of unpredictable circumstances, heroism, human and technical failure, they are also unique time capsules, and all too often the graves of human lives and aspirations.

Arguably the most famous wreck on Britain’s shores is the Mary Rose. Her capsizing on the 19 July 1545 after a short but fierce engagement with invading French ships is one of those moments charged with both real and metaphorical significance. Built more than 30 years before, the ship sank in moments. Discussion as to why still continues: probably a combination of bad luck, timing and an imbalance in her load.

As it happens, we have an almost eyewitness account of the event in the form of an engraved copy of an original painting describing the Battle on the Solent. It marks the start of the journey through the magnificent new displays at Portsmouth’s historic harbour, and completes the arc of a remarkable story, bringing it back to almost the moment when it all started.

In the centre of the image (based on a painting commissioned by Sir Anthony Browne sometime between 1545 and 1548) visitors glimpse the two masts of the Tudor royal ship still sticking out just above the waves before finally going under. In the water around, some poor sailors desperately cling to life, hopefully soon to be picked up by one of the nearby boats. The remains of some of their unfortunate comrades are shown in the displays – the exhibition makers must be commended on their handling of this, which is never sensationalist, always in the service of the narrative and always respectful to those who perished.

Stirring experience

This all contributes to a thoroughly humane and touching experience, which starts by entering through the middle of the Mary Rose’s three decks, the main deck. Forecastle and aftcastle – the front and back of the upper deck – are gone and in their place are six galleries filled with finds from the vessel. These fairly traditional object displays, with labels and panels, are interspersed with touchscreens aimed at younger audiences and filmed vignettes of life on the ship. The poignancy lies in the connection to the event.

The displays’ contents are themed around the crew, with their role on the vessel illustrated by the rescued objects. There are the surgeon, the archer, the cook and the officer, together with the tools of their trades and their individual stories – that is, as far as they can be gleaned from dental evidence, clothing and kit. An immediate and often fascinating image of the crew on board builds up: their age, their origin – not all were of British stock – and their careers.

The lowest of the three levels, and the second stage in the visitor route, is dedicated to the discovery and exploration of the wreck of the Mary Rose and her final resurrection. This story is no less gripping than the story of the sinking.

The first efforts were made to raise her as early as the 1550s; there followed years, that turned into centuries, of gradual oblivion, during which the wreck sank further and further into the silt – until its dramatic rediscovery and rescue in the 1980s.

Taking the lift from the bottom to the upper deck, with its spaces for the officers and the fighting crews, allows a view over the full length of the hull, displayed in the centre of the hall. Here, between the galleries, three on the back and three in the front of the ship, sits the main attraction: visitors enter any of three airlocked walkways that run parallel to each other through the vessel’s decks, now protected and completely conserved.

The effect is hard to put into words. The air is cool and quiet, the lighting subdued, an almost imperceptible hum fills the space, and as you lean over the glass railings you can almost taste the ship: a smell of wood and, faintly, of chemicals, not unpleasant, and a completely unexpected addition to the sensory experience. There are discreet soundscapes, with the voices of seamen and the creaking of masts and rigging, the cries of seagulls; every now and then a light switches on, enabling you to discern details you hadn’t noticed before.

Ghost ship

At other times there are projections, like ghostly apparitions of the long-dead crew in the spaces they would have inhabited, fighting, drinking, gambling. The objects – cannons, kit, sailing equipment, personal items – have been taken out from the spaces where they were found, and placed on the other side of the walkways, so as you walk through it is as if you were moving through and inside the deck. Glass sections open views into the decks below. There is no labelling, thankfully, just several discreet computer screens that help explore the spaces virtually; the main experience is sensory, atmospheric and utterly magical.

Previous visitors will still remember the views from little windows on to the conservation works, the clutter of technical equipment and the tubes of the drying equipment worming themselves through the interior of the ship, and the noise of the pumps. This in itself offered an insight into modern archaeology and conservation at work, but was always meant as a step towards the final presentation of what is now on view.

The exhibition is mainly directed at an adult public, and there is relatively little to do for children in the actual displays, but the museum supplies activity sheets, and there is an interactive with pikes and bows and arrows on the upper deck. Provision for foreign languages is still missing, but will be provided in the shape of leaflets and guides. Navigation through the exhibition is clear, but it can be easily assumed that many visitors will come back, again and again, into this captivating space at the heart
of the museum.

As someone who works in museum interpretation, this is what I would call interpreter’s gold: an utterly gripping story told with poignant objects in atmospheric displays.

Dirk Bennett is the exhibition development manager for London’s Tower Bridge, and the Monument, which commemorates the Great Fire of London
Project data
Cost £5.4m (latest phase)
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund; Garfield Weston Foundation
Exhibition design Land Design; Real Studios
Interpretation Christopher Dobbs (MRT); Eric Kentley (consultant)
AV consultants Graham English and Spiral Productions (content); Sysco (hardware)
Lighting Adam Grater, DHA Lighting
Architects WilkinsonEyre (exterior); Chris Brandon, Perkins+Will (interior)
Conservation Mark Jones; Eleanor Schofield (MRT)
Admission £18 Adult

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