I’ve been aware and conscious of the Mary Rose for most of my life. As a child, I remember quite vividly, the lead up to the raising of the Tudor warship, through regular appearances on Blue Peter and Newsround, memorably led by archaeologist Margaret Rule (here she is speaking to Sally Taylor on South Today in 2013 when the museum opened). At the very end of the museum tour, is a small sculpture of Dr Rule, who died in 2015, along with Alexander McKee, the two archeologist who ultimate made this museum a possibility.
It’s genuinely sad that Dr Rule passed away just a year before the hard work she instigated reached its current state. Only in 2016 did the remains of The Mary Rose finally unburdened itself of the conservation processes that now allows to be seen in all its glory. Having been sprayed with water and chemicals for over 20 years following its raising, it spent some years drying out in a sealed hotbox. That finally disappeared last year and the remains of the ship, still in the cradle that lifted it from the Solent seabed, can now be seen in full.
The experience for the visitor is simply stunning. The clever combination of lighting, sound effects, 3D projection and the architecture of the building itself all lend to the sense of atmosphere.
The museum itself is tucked away at the far end of Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. It’s low profile, clamshell like appearance is hidden behind HMS Victory. The building itself is clad in dark timbers, not dissimilar to the colour of the ship timbers inside. The museum is built around the dry dock where The Mary Rose was laid to rest following its raising, and not that far from where it is believed she was originally built. As the guidebook comments, most new museums are built and then filled with artefacts. In this instance the main exhibit was already in situ and the museum had to be built around it.
The exhibition starts with some background to the origins of the ship, in a short, curved gallery space. This only gives a hint of what’s to come, with a few choice exhibits on show. From here you must wait to progress further. Eventually doors open automatically and you enter a small cinema space. Often museum videos are endless, and you never see the whole thing. However, this one is short, but ever so effective. reconstructing the sinking of the ship from the perspective of one of its crew members. As soon as has begun and you are allowed to enter the museum proper.
This is the first of a series of small gallery spaces, depicting some of the many many finds recovered from the wreck site. The items are grouped by the original owner, be it the chef, the burser, the surgeon, the carpenter or one of the senior crew members. It’s wasn’t particularly busy on my visit, but it’s these spaces where I have the greatest criticism. Even with a smallish crowd, the space was cramped, and it was tricky to pass down some walkways and have a good look at some of the items on show.
From here, it one of three chances you get to see the main exhibit itself, as you pass the full length of the ship at three different levels. The first is along the middle. To one side, through the glass, is the ship, lit in dim white and blue lights. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the lower light levels, but when they do, the view is remarkable. To make the experience even more all sensory, there is a subtle sound of a tall ship in full sail at sea, the creaking of the timbers and the strain in the ropes. It’s done subtly enough not to become ridiculous, but enough to add to the overall atmosphere. These longer galleries are also used to display some of the larger items, such as the cannons, and anchor rope. Where only part of an item exists, the museum have created frosted perspex replacements, so you can ‘see’ the object as a whole.
The museum then repeats itself, with more exhibits at each end of the ship. The second pass is at the bottom of the boat. For the final pass of the ship, at the very top, you pass into the same airspace as The Mary Rose, something that the public have only been able to since 2016. To do so, you must pass through an airlock from the rest of the museum. You’re immediately hit by the distinct smell of the ship, but you also see her in even more clarity than was possible behind glass.
The tour ends with a final video, this time news footage of the raising of The Mary Rose. Footage I thought I knew. Certainly the yellow cradle by which the ship was lifted from the sea bed was etched into my memory. But I’d totally forgotten that the ship slipped a little during its lifting, with the immediate dread that all the hard work had been for naught. Fortunately, nothing untoward had occurred, and this remarkable recovery from Henry VIII’s Navy is now proudly displayed for all to see.
The Mary Rose Museum is open from 10am to 5pm (November to March) and from 10am to 5.30pm (April to October). It is closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The Museum is part of the wider Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Tickets can be purchased for the Mary Rose itself, or for the whole of the Dockyard, including HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and The National Museum of the Royal Navy.