Mary Rose Trust works to unite Henry VIII's warship with its Tudor treasures

By Richard Moss | 28 September 2009
an atmospheric wreck with back lighting

The wreck of the Mary Rose. 'one of the most impressive and haunting encounters to be found in any museum in the UK'. © Richard Moss / Culture24

For the last seventeen years, encountering the Mary Rose in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard has been like walking into a vast movie set - with the famous Tudor shipwreck cast as the carcass of some alien space ship - lying in its atmospheric glass-cased berth.

The mist, lights and constant spraying of protective polyethylene glycol have helped to heighten the sense of spectacle, but whatever the abiding impression, the visitor experience of peering behind the glass has made for one of the most impressive and haunting encounters in any museum in the UK.

Now this unique encounter has come temporarily to a close as the Mary Rose Trust closes the door on the No.3 dock and embarks on an ambitious £35m project that will finally preserve the remains of the ship.

A new museum will open on top of the iconic shipwreck in 2012 that will innovatively showcase her remarkable haul of Tudor artefacts – currently residing in the Mary Rose Museum some 100 yards stroll away across the Dockyard.

It will be a fitting end for a vessel that in it’s Tudor heyday enjoyed a long and successful career before famously coming to grief in the Solent in front of King Henry VIII’s unbelieving eyes.

an artists impression of the new gallery

The new museum will re-unite the ship with the objects she yielded.

Having sailed out to meet the French fleet, the overloaded warship is said to have released one of her devastating broadsides and then, as she wheeled round to deliver another, quickly sunk to the seabed as water flooded through her open gun ports.

There she remained until 1982 when the skeletal remains were raised and towed back to the port where she was built, lying at rest in a massive dock cum preservation laboratory in Portsmouth harbour.

The first phase of the ambitious new museum being built around her will be opened in 2012 when the hull will begin its final drying out process (once again before the public gaze) until she can be displayed as a fully stabilised relic in 2016. Visitors will then be able to walk across glass walkways to examine her close up and see many of the thousands of Tudor artefacts under the same roof and in the context of the ship.

One of the people who dived on the Mary Rose and helped recover much of her precious cargo is maritime archaeologist Christopher Dobbs of the Mary Rose Trust. He now heads a dedicated team charged with developing the ambitious new museum.

a close up of old timbers

The ship is sprayed with a protective polyethylene glycol solution. © Richard Moss / Culture24

“The fantastic thing about the Mary Rose collection is that we’ve got all the objects and the ship they were found in – but for the last 26 years they have been divorced from each other,” he says. “The ship has been displayed at one end of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and the artefacts at the other.

“One of the main elements of the vision is that we should combine the two parts of the collection and display a large proportion of it just opposite the ship.”

The new museum, says Dobbs, is being designed “to bring out the context of the objects and to explain where they were found on board.”

“This will help people to understand the ship better - how the main deck was very much the area for the guns and the ordnance and the fighting, and how the orlop deck was very much for storage and the cooking areas.”

Surprisingly, for many visitors it is the collection of 19,000 objects, all of it identifiable and datable to the year 1545 and much of it on display in the Mary Rose Museum, which really brings the Mary Rose experience alive and into focus.

an atmospheric wreck with back lighting

© Richard Moss / Culture24

“It’s quite interesting that over the last 26 years many people have come down to Portsmouth to see the ship, but it’s actually the collection of objects that really surprises and amazes them,” says Dobbs.

“When we were excavating the site, on every dive you might bring up a different object - whether it was the linstocks that were used to fire the guns and hold the slow burning fuse, or somebody’s shoe, or a longbow, or a shovel - you could find different things on every dive.”

Historian David Starkey describes the ship and its finds as “this country’s Pompeii” and current visitors to the Mary Rose Museum will still be able explore the thousands of objects in the collection. It’s a remarkable haul that ranges from humble shoelaces and lice-infested combs to longbows, arrows and the ornate cannon that once thundered their shot towards the French fleet. “These objects can really tell the stories of the people on board and can help us relate to Tudor life,” says Dobbs.

The two-phase, £35 million lottery-backed plan is undoubtedly ambitious. Objects will be placed in specially-designed glass cases opposite the ship to carefully reflect the position in which they were found. On completion in 2016, visitors will also be able to explore the ship - front and back. The result, says Dobbs, will be a visitor experience that is much more personal.

an atmospheric wreck with back lighting

© Richard Moss / Culture24

“What we want to do is introduce visitors to the people who lived and worked on the Mary Rose, so they’ll see their shoes, their combs their daggers, the ends of their shoelaces, their leather jackets,” he says.

“Then because of the objects that were found near them – or perhaps all in a chest together – we’ll be able to show how some of these people would have been gunners and others cooks, others the barber surgeon or the carpenter. We want to introduce to them to the person and then to the professional role and then we can look at the wider themes in Tudor society.

“What we did as archaeologists underwater was empty the context of the ship in an archaeological excavation and what we are doing now is putting them back – almost into the positions we found them in.”

However, like many great museum experiences, from the Pitt Rivers to the ss Great Britain, the public has come to expect a certain experience, not to say atmosphere, when they visit the Mary Rose. The vast wreck has something magical - a power that chills people to the bone and, according to Dobbs, retaining and even improving on that atmosphere is upmost in the Trust’s minds.

an artists impression of the new gallery

Courtesy Mary Rose Trust

“It’s this intangible experience we want recreate in the new museum,” he says, “so that people aren’t just taking information in with their eyes but they can use touch and smell and hearing and vision – all the different senses. It will be interesting to see how we can recreate a different but equally exciting atmosphere.”

As has been the case since it was hauled from the seabed, the Mary Rose will continue to sit in what is effectively a huge laboratory as the new museum carefully and slowly takes shape around her. This means the iconic wreck and its atmospheric glow of polyethylene glycol will be out of view for three years, until 2011, when it will once again be unveiled to the public and dried out.

“It’s a challenge,” admits Dobbs, “but it was a challenge when it was underwater. I think that’s one of the fun things about it – it’s very bonkers and English to raise and save a shipwreck from the sea and put it on display.”

When the Mary Rose Trust was set up it had very specific objectives: namely to find, excavate, raise, record, preserve, bring ashore the Mary Rose and its collection. Gradually over the last 30 years they have been ticking these objectives off. Now they are closing in on the final and most challenging one – to and display it in Portsmouth for all time.

So, bonkers or not, with Heritage Lottery Funding in place, the new Mary Rose Museum is going to be a reality. In the meantime visitors can track the progress of the ship via interactive displays at the Mary Rose Museum – and of course be amazed by the collection of Tudor objects that will soon be making the short journey across the dockyard to be next to the ship that once held them.

Read Christopher Dobbs Curator's Choice in which he talks about a simple wooden shovel he recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose in 1981.

The Mary Rose Collection is a Designated collection of national and international importance.

2010 is Year of the Museum in the South East, discover a museum at www.culture24.org.uk/southeast and find out about the Beautiful South at www.visitsoutheastengland.com.

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