Thoughts on the Mary Rose Museum

The Cowdray engraving of the battle of the Sol...

The Cowdray engraving of the battle of the Solent, 1545. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the risk of sounding a discordant note amongst the paeans of praise heaped upon the new Mary Rose Museum I want to raise one concern over the way it presents itself. I’ve seen the Mary Rose twice before; once very soon after the raising and once in the late 1990’s and there’s no doubt its one of the UK’s most impressive collections of maritime heritage.

The new museum is a terrific piece of work in many ways and the many (very many) artefacts are well displayed and shown in context of the lives of their owners on board. Its logically laid out, mostly well labelled and, within the necessary constraints of keeping lighting low to preserve objects, easy to enjoy and learn from.

Where I wasn’t so happy was that the hull of the ship seems almost like a side show – tucked away behind a wall with small viewing windows that aren’t always convenient if you are short (or I could imagine, in a wheel chair). All the focus is on the stuff found on the ship and then mainly on things that could be related to crew members rather than the ship itself. There isn’t much presented on the structure of the ship, how it was built or its history up to the sinking. There is precious little on the finding of the ship – Alexander McKee’s work and Margaret Rule – or on the techniques of excavation or conservation, all of which deserve a bigger part of the presentation.

There are some stunning things here (the reconstruction of the archer alongside his skeleton, the interactive display of the painting of the sinking (the Cowdray engraving, above) and the parallel “hull” with objects in place were to me three high points), it’s just a shame that the museum doesn’t seem to think (on the strength of the displays) that the ship itself is very significant.

A few words about the overall Dockyard site itself – the place is a shambles, with things widely spread out and no real coherence between the exhibits. This is partly because of the way that they ticket individual attractions but partly how they have managed the use of the buildings available, and I suppose the restrictions of sharing the site with the Navy. The museum could take a leaf out of Ironbridge Gorge’s book in organising a spread out venue with multiple attractions. They need a core section that gives a heart to the whole thing, lose the new, nailed-on visitor centre (and use one of the sheds) and create a more integrated experience for the site as well as the individual ships / exhibits. They need to rethink the concessions too – the jumble of an antique shop, the run down feel of Boathouse No. 7 and the less than wonderful catering. Nice branding – shame about the product.

P.S. They also need to get the car park “free spaces” display fixed on the approach – it was showing 120 spaces as we drove onto a queue to find at the head “car park full” signs. Stuck in a narrow street (Admiralty Road) with no real opportunity to turn around, it took us 30 minutes to get into the car park. As we walked to the dockyard gate we passed another car park (in Wickham Street, I think) : half the price and no queue.

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