The Mary Rose museum review: Prepare to be moved and impressed

Huon Mallalieu re-visits the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth for the first time since its refurbishment – and suggests we all do the same.

The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard reopened in July 2016 after a three-year makeover. Anyone who visited it in its previous incarnation, admirable though that was, should return, prepared to be both moved and impressed. There is a particular power to wrecks that rise again.

Those of an age to have been among the 60 million people who, on October 11, 1982, watched what was then the longest-ever television outside broadcast are likely to have forgotten the emotion of the moment when Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose, broke surface after 437 years on the Solent bottom. Swedes similarly remember where they were in 1961 when Vasa was raised.

For 12 years, the timbers had to be constantly sprayed with water, later with a solution of polyethelene glycol, and could only be viewed through mist and glass. Now, one can share the air with the stabilised timbers and seemingly walk the length of the ship’s spine on the levels of three decks. This is an illusion, of course, as only the major part of the starboard side survived underwater.

To the one side as one walks is the ship, onto which are projected animations of the crew working their stations and, on one’s other hand, is a virtual port side furnished with actual salvaged objects positioned as they would have been on the day she capsized — July 19, 1545. Rather touchingly, the animations were acted by members of the museum staff.

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The new museum has been conceived as an oyster, with the ship as pearl, but, from the outside, it more resembles an elliptical mussel shell and its timber-clad lower parts reference traditional English boat sheds. The handsome building next to HMS Victory is by Wilkinson Eyre Architects; the interiors, the work of Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will, are low lit to create a dark, claustrophobic below-decks atmosphere.

There were only around 34 survivors of the 500 men aboard and the remains of 179 individuals and the ship’s dog were found among the thousands of artefacts in the Solent silt. Ninety-two have been partially reconstructed and one has been buried in Portsmouth Cathedral. Together with their accoutrements and equipment, they provide us with a new understanding of Tudor life and death—and not just at sea.

Facial reconstructions have been created from skulls, using the forensic techniques of crime investigators to bring the story of Mary Rose and her crew to life.

The many thousands of artefacts on display, some of which can be handled, along with reconstructions, include personal belongings such as wooden bowls, leather shoes, musical instruments and nit combs, and many of the ship’s weapons, from longbows to two-ton brass guns. Great changes had occurred during the 34-year career of Mary Rose—in warfare and gunnery as in Church and State—and these are recorded in the hull itself, as well as in the dry documents of Tudor bureaucracy.

Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth: