Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Mary Rose, by Sue Purkiss

So - you've spent years in search of the wreck of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, which you know has lain under fourteen metres of water in Portsmouth Harbour since 1545 - somewhere. In 1971, after three years, you find four timbers: the frames of the port side of the ship. So far so good - but it's buried under four centuries of silt.

For the next eleven years, teams of divers, archaeologists and engineers work on releasing the ship from its muddy shroud - remembering always that this is the grave not just of a ship, but of the 500 men who went down with her. The enterprise is not financed by the government: it has to be paid for. So there's all that side of it to consider too. It probably helps that you acquire an influential backer in the form of Prince Charles, who dives down to see the ship for himself, and to lend a hand.

Eventually, in October 1982, the great moment arrives. 60 million people all over the world watch the longest outside broadcast yet undertaken, as an enormous floating crane, the Tog Mor, slowly raises a steel cradle in which nestle the remains of Henry's once-proud ship. Klaxons sound from all the vessels gathered to watch: a gun salute comes from Southsea Castle, where two years before his own death, Henry watched as his ship sank during an engagement with a French invasion fleet. It's a moment of high drama, a story of achievement against huge odds. Everyone holds their breath: something could still go wrong.

The raising of the Mary Rose, from Visit Hampshire

But it doesn't. The ship arrives safely at its new home, a dry dock in Portsmouth Harbour, next to that relative youngster, Nelson's Victory.

But then what?

What you have is historic and romantic and a tangible link with the world of the Tudors - but it is basically half a ship, and it's incredibly fragile. Its timbers have been preserved under the silt which excluded oxygen and all the organisms which happily munched on the half that wasn't covered up - but as soon as the wood is exposed to the air, it is at risk.

Clever scientists work out what to do about the wood. From the moment she emerges from the sea, pumps attached to the lifting frame begin to spray her with water, and this will continue for many years - except for a few hours a day, when the archaeologists can do their work. A shelter is built above her. The water washes the salts out of the ancient timbers, and she is sprayed with ployethylene glycol to stregthen them. Then, in 2013, the sprays are turned off, and large air ducts take on the job of removing the water from the timbers, now that they have been stabilised.

So that's the preservation side taken care of. But part of your remit is to establish a museum to house the Mary Rose and all the artefacts which were found inside her - and how do you do that? The SS Great Britain, Brunel's beautiful ship, which I've written about here before, was also battered by the elements and by the years - but it was possible to restore her to the extent that you can see her now almost as she was when she was a 'living' ship. That was never going to be feasible with the Mary Rose. So how was she to be displayed?

The solution the architects (Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon)found is breathtakingly clever. The museum is on three levels, corresponding to the lower decks, main decks, and upper decks. On each gallery, you walk along a passageway with glass partitions on either side. On the right is the cross-section which is what remains of the ship itself. You can see the cabins, the gunports - the whole structure of the ship. On the left, you can see the objects which were found on the deck you can see on your right. And what a wealth of objects there are: weapons, of course, as this was a warship - but also the personal possessions of the men on board, and the tools of their trades.

The Mary Rose - picture by Rosie Smith

There are also moving tableaux on board the ship, showing groups of sailors about their tasks - holograms, perhaps? I don't know, but whatever they are, they're very realistic. The passageway you walk along dips, and somehow you have the impression that you're on a moving ship - I don't know how they manage this, but they do. It's all very clever.

Then when you leave the viewing gallery, there's a section with displays of the artefacts and explanations of what they have learnt from them. So for instance, you are shown what was found in the surgeon's cabin, and given notes on each object - what they were used for, what they tell us. And they have reconstructed from some of the skeletons what the living men may have looked like, and have made videos using actors who look similar to show them using the objects found - so the surgeon wears the hat which was found, and the leather shoes, and demonstrates some of his intruments.

I'm fascinated by the ways that museums and art galleries have found in the last twenty or so years to display their artefacts. There are some beautiful extensions and remodellings, such as in the Ashmolean and the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum, and such clever uses of technology, as in the Museum of European History in Brussels, the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, and this Mary Rose Museum. Sometimes, it seems that when you look out at the world, you see so much horror. It's as if civilisation is going backwards, not forwards, and as if nothing has been learnt from history. But in this area, the reverse is true. So much has been and is being learnt, both of history, and of how to display it and make it meaningful. Thank heavens for museums!


Joan Lennon said...

That museum sounds amazing - thanks for this!

abigail brieson said...

I would love to visit this one day. A museum designed and operated well - with respect for it's contents and the significance each holds, as well as serving to form with it's guests connections between past and present - is a priceless resource. A museum that's a collection of bits and pieces, without content or signifance, is a sorrow.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, everyone. Abigail - that's interesting: I guess the Mary Rose Museum does have a bit of a head start, as it clearly exists for a specific purpose. Harder, perhaps, for an older museum which may have been collecting all sorts of disparate things over many decades.