New museum: The Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

By Ben Miller | 31 May 2013

Museum opening: Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth, opens May 31 2013

A photo of a reconstruction of a male sailor next to a skeleton
© Hufton + Crow
In the middle of the museum replicating arguably England’s most famous naval vessel, down a walkway following the curve of Henry VIII’s ship, a bell rings every 30 minutes.

But today it’s been turned off, and there’s no hint of the usual creaking sound effects, the better to let Nick Butterley, the exhibition co-ordinator at the Dockyard, reflect on the painstaking process of helping create the displays inside a homage to maritime history first given serious thought four years ago.

“What we’ve essentially created is a replica of the ship itself,” he says, pausing inside the darkened corridor.

“It’s got all the artefacts where they were found on the ship. When you see a gun pointing through a point, we know that’s exactly where that it came from.

“We think it’s the largest hand-controlled showcase in the world. The artefacts might look solid, but chemically they’re very, very fragile.

“It’s a way of presenting the archaeological material which is really unusual, if not unique.”

In the dry dock built by Henry VII in 1497, standing on the same cradle the shipwreck was hoisted onto in 1982, this £35 million museum tells a story which started when the Mary Rose sank in the Solent 468 years ago.

There are skeletons of dogs – the ship’s part-Jack Russell, part-whippet resident – stools bearing meat-stained knife marks, syringes used to draw blood for medical examinations, nit combs, bows and arrows and beads used in religious ritualism.

Butterley is looking at a set of gun mounts weighing up to three tons each. “The collection is in a very tightly controlled environment, which was a huge challenge to create.

“We wanted to get that set of conditions bang on before we started to move anything in – we didn’t want to take any chances.

“The logistics and planning of how these doors would open and when we’d move the guns in was really quite difficult. But the end result is well worth it.”

Planners took hold of the building last August. Their immersive design grows darker and narrower as you descend each of the three 16th century levels.

At the bottom of one of the staircases, in the most visually striking of the new displays, artist Oscar Nilsson has reconstructed the bodies of nine of the crew, a process which, points out curator Alexzandra Hildred, has applied basic aspects of forensic science.

“They usually do this for crime scenes,” she says. “This is the only gallery that has human remains in it. Of the 179 people found, 92 were able to be fairly well put together.”

The layout, she says, represents “some of the chaos” found by archaeologists and divers on the rescued ship.

“There were layers and layers of confusion. Some of the things were on their sides or turned over. The gallery was made of two brick-built ovens.”

The details are often gruesome: extra bits of bone reveal the healing process of broken bones, scurvy and rickets were rife, and one shipmate’s poor diet cost him his gums.

“You can look into the eyes of the crew,” says Hildred, meeting the archer’s gaze.

“He had really bad hips. As a child, he had some really bad trauma which stopped the blood flow to his hip bone.

"That stops them growing and makes them go flat. He wouldn’t be much use doing guns.”

Other conclusions are based on where the bodies were found. “One of the questions we get is, ‘why haven’t you thrown them back into the sea?’

“But the reservoir of information we can get from them about life at that specific moment is phenomenal.

“Some of them are kept in our own mausoleum, but others we very quietly use for specific projects.”

The archer is the most complete rebuilt inhabitant. “We found a wristguard nearby to stop chafing of the bone.

“He’s got particular stresses on his shoulders where the ends of the shoulders don’t fuse because of a lot of pushing and pulling at a young age.”

The forensics rarely extend to precisely naming the individual sailors, although the Captain, Roger Grenville, and an Admiral, George Carew, have been discovered along with a cook whose bowl bears his name, Ny Cop.

The Anthony Roll trilogy, created by Henry VIII and now split between London and Cambridge, has been a “wonderful resource” for their inquiries.

“When it was finally released, in 1546, the 20 great ships on it included the Mary Rose,” says Hildred.

“All of the men and weapons in the King’s ‘sea army’ were listed.

“It was a great PR stunt. He was basically saying, ‘you mess with me – this is my navy.’”

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (5pm November-March). Tickets £11.25-£17 (family ticket £42.30-£47). Book online. Follow the museum on Twitter @MaryRoseMuseum.

More pictures:

A photo of a human skull inside a display case
A photo of a human skull and bones inside a museum display case
A photo of a skeleton
A photo of a reconstruction of a sailor standing next to a skeleton
A photo of various naval artefacts from the 16th century within a museum display case
A photo of a giant naval cannon inside a museum
© Hufton + Crow
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