30 May 2013

Inside the new Mary Rose museum

The Mary Rose, Britain’s revered Tudor warship, is the centrepiece of a new museum that gives a startling insight into life during the period.

It was the pride of Henry VIII and one of Britain’s first broadside-firing warships.

And for centuries historians have struggled to explain what caused the Mary Rose to sink in July 1545, in a battle with the French fought so close to land that Henry himself, on a tower at Southsea castle, saw it plunge to the bottom of the Solent.

Now, 468 years after that catastrophic day, the Mary Rose and thousands of Tudor artefacts are to be displayed in a £27 million museum that opens in Portsmouth tomorrow. It has been described as a “Tudor time capsule”.

Archive of artefacts

Portsmouth’s Mary Rose exhibition includes reconstructed faces of seven of the 400 crew members using forensic facial technology usually reserved for identifying murder victims.

There are longbows deployed in battle; 468-year-old nit-clearing combs and even the ship’s dog, a whippet-terrier cross, reconstructed.

The historian David Starkey describes the Mary Rose as “the English Pompeii, preserved by water, not fire”. He says: “All Tudor life is there; it is like stepping inside a Holbein painting.”

Most of the objects are displayed as they would have appeared on the ship.

Archaeologist Chris Dobbs signed up to the project in 1979 and is now head of interpretation. “For a lot of us, it was our dream 30 years ago to have the Mary Rose with the conservation finished and in a museum where it could be displayed for ever.”

He adds: “We are trying to give people the closest experience they can get of walking on the Mary Rose. Everything here is real, these aren’t replicas, it isn’t a theme park or a Hollywood movie set.”

The exterior of the museum was designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre and the interior by Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will. Both are the beneficiary of £23m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and worked together as a collaborative approach.

This morning the Mary Rose’s bell was transported from the wreck site out at sea to the museum for the formal opening ceremony. The museum opens to the public tomorrow.

It remains within throwing distance of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, as well as the modern ships of today’s Royal Navy.

The Mary Rose: the fall and rise of a historic vessel 

* Mary Rose sank off Portsmouth on July 19 1545 in front of Henry VIII, who was watching his favourite ship engage the French. It appears that she was overloaded or mishandled and not, as the French claim, holed by one of their cannon.

* Built between 1509 and 1511, she was the pride of the Tudor fleet and one of the first warships which could fire a broadside.

* She was named after Princess Mary, Henry's youngest sister.

* After she sank, there were attempts to salvage her, but the vessel slipped into the silt of the Solent and was forgotten.

* It was the dream of diver Alexander McKee to find and raise the Mary Rose. He began searching the Solent in the 1960s but it was not until 1971 that she was found.

* The Mary Rose Trust was formed in 1979 to raise the ship. The Prince of Wales was an enthusiastic supporter and dived to the wreck several times in the 1970s.

* More than 60m people around the world watched her raised live on TV on October 11 1982.