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In depth

Conservation and Connection: The Mary Rose Museum

The new Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – which is where, over 500 years ago, Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose was built – has just been shortlisted for the National Lottery Good Causes Award in the Best Heritage category. 

The museum opened to visitors in May 2013, 30 years after the hull of the Mary Rose was raised from the bed of the Solent in 1982, and 468 years after she sank while leading the attack against a French invasion fleet. 

Blooloop spoke to Robert Lapraik (below), who has been Deputy CEO of the Mary Rose Trust since 2006, and who was responsible for securing funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make the new museum possible.

robert lapraik of the mary rose museum

“I became involved about eight years ago, just at the point where we were making approaches to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding to try and get the new museum up and going. The first challenge was to have a proposal which would attract significant funding from the HLF. We were obviously looking at a quite substantial amount.”

The ground-breaking project involved raising matched funding to achieve the project total of £35 million: “…Which wasn’t my responsibility, ” Robert Lapraik adds thankfully.

An Award Winning Tudor Time-Capsulemary rose trust logo

The next challenge was to find a design that would blend sympathetically into its environment. “You couldn’t have a massive shed-like structure near the HMS Victory.”

To further complicate matters, the dry dock where the Mary Rose is situated itself is a listed structure, which meant its integrity couldn’t be compromised during the building process.

The end result, which won the coveted Project of the Year category at the Building awards 2014, was the carvel-built Mary Rose Museum by Wilkinson Eyre Architects and Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will in the blackened timber of traditional shipyards. Its curvilinear structure partly reminiscent of a ship, it has been conceived as a jewel box with the Tudor warship as its jewel.

mary rose museum exterior

The design encompasses the ‘hot box’ within which the ship’s timbers are reaching the final stages of the drying process. Visitors can view the hull through windows giving glimpses from different aspects from  the galleries running the length of the ship, each corresponding to a deck. Once the drying process is complete, provision has been made for the removal of the internal walls so the hull can be seen complete with artefacts.

The museum, which was also among the chief winners at the Museums and Heritage Awards in May this year, beating the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to scoop the restoration/conservation award, and also winning the award for best permanent exhibition,  contrives to fit into the marine landscape; maintain the structural integrity of the historic dock, and to showcase the unique piece of history that is the Mary Rose.

This last is a formidable responsibility.

mary rose sinking

But as Soon as I Mention the Dog

The Mary Rose is often referred to as a ‘Tudor time-capsule’. The swift manner of its sinking and the conditions which led to its preservation afford a direct glimpse into a moment of our past. Dr David Starkey called the Mary Rose: "… the English Pompeii”.

It’s an apt analogy, for the moment to which we are transported by the ‘time machine’ that is the Mary Rose is the moment of the crew’s death.

This is something the museum acknowledges with sensitivity: at the opening ceremony, a service was held for the men who died when the ship went down, and the personal identifying marks engraved on the belongings of the men – who would have been illiterate – have been incorporated into the building.

“When their world ended, our story began…” runs the museum’s tagline. Five hundred men and boys – some as young as thirteen – died on the Mary Rose: five hundred men, and a small dog. Robert Lapraik commented: 

“I can speak to a roomful of people of the death of the five hundred men and it’s greeted with silence. But as soon as I mention the dog, there’s a collective ‘Aaaaaah…’”

The dog, which has been named ‘Hatch’, – a smallish whippet/terrier cross, was found outside the carpenter’s cabin, and it’s speculated he was probably the carpenter’s dog. His job would have been to deal with any rats on board. Although we are familiar with the idea of ship’s cats, in fact dogs are far better suited to take on full-sized rats, and in Tudor times cats were still seen as witches’ familiars. 

The opening of the museum is the fulfilment of a dream conceived in 1982 – and an impressive achievement. At times, the technical challenges of conserving the hull and artefacts and the formidable task of raising sufficient funds to do the project justice seemed insurmountable.

Exploring the Cowdray Engraving at the mary rose museum

A Poignant Glimpse into Everyday Lives

What sets this museum apart is its personal nature. It gives us a glimpse not into generalised Tudor life, but into the lives of the 500 specific men who sailed, lived and died on the Mary Rose. Their possessions; their personal marks engraved on their belongings; the food they ate and the utensils they used – all can be seen; all are reminders that very little except 500 years separates these people from us.

The nearly 20, 000 artefacts found on the Mary Rose have given archaeologists an unprecedented chance to research and collect data on Tudor items. They also afford a poignant glimpse into the everyday lives of the people on board: there are peppercorns; clothing; games; musical instruments; there are the books and fine pewterware of the officers; there are lice combs; cooking utensils; stored food.  There is a rumour – possibly apocryphal – that one of the barber-surgeon’s pots of ointment bore a mark from a scooping finger when first opened, impressed in its contents from when it was last used.leather boot from the mary rose

There is such a diverse wealth of artefacts, there is sure to be an object that resonates with every visitor. 

A volunteer at the museum spoke of coming across a woman moved to tears by the exhibits. Robert Lapraik was delighted: it meant an emotional connection had been forged. For him, that connection was made by a shoe with a hole worn in its sole over the ball of the foot: the same place as the hole worn in one of his son’s shoes, carelessly left at home with the sole uppermost, a hole worn over the ball of the foot.

Facial reconstructions based on cutting-edge forensic science and osteo-archaeology on the human remains found at the wreck site  – the same technology used by Scotland Yard – have brought seven of the ship’s company compellingly to life, their faces displayed alongside their personal belongings. The human remains give us fascinating insights into the physical toll exacted by certain lifestyles: the archer bears the marks of the repetitive strain associated with drawing a longbow repeatedly day after day, and his finger-bone is grooved from the bowstring. One group of skeletons have the fused vertebrae associated with heavy physical labour such as the lifting of cannonballs and manipulation of the huge cannons, indicating that they were a gun crew.

The museum has a sophisticated outreach programme. Schools can benefit from a visit from a Mary Rose expert to enhance a history or science lesson, or free loan boxes containing costume, artefact handling resources and a number of curriculum-based activities; community and social groups can book talks, and handling collections are taken to a variety of special needs groups. The gifted outreach officer turns stomachs as he goes into luridly graphic detail about the horrors inflicted on people in the name of Tudor medicine.

linstocks from the mary rose

But the museum leaves the visitor in no doubt that, differences in medical solutions aside, those who died on that July day when the Mary Rose went down were just people, no different from the ones exclaiming now over their remains.

This intimacy is what makes the Mary Rose museum unique, and it is what brings visitors back time after time.

Salvage and Conservation

The salvage of the Mary Rose – the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world – is the largest ever underwater excavation undertaken, an ongoing heritage project that has taken over thirty years.

The conservation process has been formidable.The hull remains for the present in a ‘hot box’ with ducts directing  dried air at specific temperatures evenly across the hull, the culmination of a process that began in 1982. Initially, the hull, once raised, was covered in thin foam and kept wet with sea water then sprayed with chilled fresh water to prevent the timbers from drying out, and to prevent the growth of bacteria. In 1994 the conservation spray was changed to polyethelene glycol, a long-chain polymer that gradually replaced the water in the timbers, then sealed them.

The final stage is the one the hull is still undergoing: the controlled drying process.

drying process at mary rose museum

One of the factors that led to the success of the HLF bid was the essential dynamism, evolution and progression built into the museum’s projected future. The hull will be on display throughout the remaining drying period, visible through viewing windows into the hot-box, while the adjacent parallel context gallery re-creates its missing side.

However, once the drying process is complete in 2016, the display will change as the hotbox is removed and the public can enter the display case with the ship, its objects displayed in context with the now dry hull for the first time in almost 500 years.

Research on the hull, the artefacts and on the human remains is ongoing. There is plenty to keep the museum changing and evolving for many decades to come – and to keep visitors coming back, to witness the next instalment of a story that is far from over.

Images: From the top 1. Exhibit (c) Marc Atkins. 2. Robert Lapraik (c) Mary Rose Trust. 3, 4 and 5. Mary Rose logo, Mary Rose Museum exterior and Mary Rose sinking (c) Mary Rose Trust. 6. Exploring the Cowdray Engraving – (c) Marc Atkins. 7 and 8. Boot and linstocks (c) Mary Rose Trust. 9. Mary Rose air drying by ZedPhoto.com.

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