Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Part 2: The Mary Rose Museum (and all the rest)

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Here’s part 2 of my outing in Portsmouth, which mainly means the new Mary Rose Museum.  I was probably more excited to see this than the Victory, even though I generally prefer Georgians to Tudors, simply because I think the history behind it is pretty incredible.  (Do you have the first version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song  (before the Professor and Mary Anne rated a mention) stuck in your head from my post title?  Just thought it would go with the maritime theme!)

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For those of you unfamiliar with its story, the Mary Rose was a Tudor ship (Henry VIII’s flagship) that famously suddenly sank during a skirmish with a French ship in 1545, thereby drowning most of the crew (only 25-30 people survived out of a crew of over 400).  Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Rose was actually a perfectly capable ship for the 34 years prior to sinking, so the theories as to why it sank are numerous, and include being hit by a French cannonball, a mistake during battle, or being toppled by the wind after extra guns had been loaded on board.  At any rate, the ship sat at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor until 1982, when it was hauled up and preserved.  Because the ship is understandably fragile after being underwater for over 400 years, and only half the ship survives (the half that was covered up by silt, which protected it from various hungry and probably disgusting looking sea creatures), unlike the other ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it is kept inside the museum, with scaffolding to protect it.  The actual wood has been preserved by somehow replacing the water molecules inside it with wax, which is apparently quite a lengthy process (I’m not sure of all the science behind it, but it is briefly explained inside the museum).  The end result is amazing to behold, and the fact that half the ship is missing makes it into a convenient cross-section, so you can really admire the interior.

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Although the Mary Rose is undeniably the showpiece of the collection (and you can walk past it at multiple levels to give you the chance to admire every aspect, including a trip up a “viewing lift”), it is by no means the only incredible thing about this museum.  Because the ship sat undisturbed for so long, and many of the crew kept their possessions in heavy chests, it turned out to be a treasure trove of Tudor artefacts, most of which are on show in the museum’s galleries.  The museum has arranged them according to the type of people who would have been working on each deck of the ship, which makes for a trip through all the seafaring social classes. Common threads that united them all were the prevalence of fine combs, designed to remove lice, and the ubiquitous dagger (including my particular favourite, the “ballock” dagger, so named for its resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy.  You can probably see what I mean from the example above).  So, you do see a lot of the same objects again and again, but there are enough tools that were unique to particular trades (I loved the section on the ship’s surgeon, with all his medical implements), and personal touches on the more common items, like carved pictures or initials, to keep things interesting.

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Of course, since most of the crew went down with the ship, there were also lots of skeletons in the wreckage, as well as jewellery and scraps of clothing.  They’ve analysed the skeletons to try to determine the age, health, and occupation of each man (aside from the captain, George Carew, we don’t really know the names of any of the crew members), and the results are fascinating.  Judging from the skulls on display, not a single man on board had a complete set of teeth in his head, and even the men who were still in their 20s already had a whole host of injuries (many of them caused by Henry’s law that required every able-bodied man to practice archery; using a longbow from an early age means that shoulder bones never fuse properly), and probably looked quite rough, judging from the facial reconstructions.  I love anything to do with medicine, so I was enthralled by their findings (and the display of bones with various types of injuries and conditions).

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We spent more time in the Mary Rose museum than any other part of the Dockyard, and I think I could have lingered even longer if we didn’t have a tour of the Victory to catch.  I really think they did an excellent job displaying all the artefacts, and the amount of signage was just right.  Plenty of great information and special sections about the history behind each job or custom, but not so much that it felt overwhelming.  My only complaint was that some of the galleries were so crowded that it was difficult to see everything, and it’s only the start of March, so the crowds must be horrible during the summer.  Because of this, I’d definitely recommend going in the off-season or possibly on a weekday if you can (although I’d worry about schoolchildren being bussed in on a weekday).

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In addition to the ships I wrote about in my earlier post, there were some other attractions at the Historic Dockyard.  Since we were starving, my boyfriend and I queued for ages just to get a tea and some chocolate fudge cake from the small case in the museum (there were only like three people ahead of us, but service was so slow, though the cake was not bad); there are a few other cafes and a chippy, but I’d rather venture into Portsmouth and take my chances with a proper seaside chippy, personally.  But there were statues of famous people to have your photo taken with, which I love doing!  (Here’s another tip, some guy will offer to take your picture with the Henry VIII inside the Mary Rose Museum, which you can buy for 8 quid at the end.  But there’s another Henry VIII statue hidden in a corner across from the building where you buy your ticket, which you can photograph as much as you like for free.  Not that I think anyone would pay £8 for a hastily taken photo by a bored museum employee anyway, but just in case you really wanted a picture with Henry.)  I liked the giant Nelson the best, especially since they accurately made his one eye look all milky and weird (he lost most of the sight in it in the same accident that took his right arm.  Poor banged-up man).

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There’s also a figurehead of some Restoration era gent who was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, and even looked a great deal like Pepys, but was not Pepys (though I think there should have been a Pepys figurehead, he was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty after all!).  Another building on the site holds some cheesy gift shop, and this weird “dockyard apprentice” exhibit that you can walk through in the back.  I did not have time to read all the text associated with it, but I guess if you do, you emerge a full-fledged worker at the other end (conveniently, they sell diplomas in the gift shop. I seriously wonder whether anyone has ever bought one).  However, it did contain two of my most favourite things; mannequins with amusing expressions, and authentic smells, so it’s worth walking through just for that.

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I guess because they were trying to give the place more of a “seaside” vibe, there were a handful of penny arcade games in there as well (I say penny, but they cost between 10-50p).  We had a couple 20ps to hand, so got suckered into the crappy ones showing some kind of tableaux that “comes to life” after you stick the money in (usually a ghost or something pops out).  Like others of their kind, these were pretty lame, and I refused to try the one where a “war criminal” was hanged, as he was a supporter of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, so I couldn’t really endorse his execution.

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I should mention that the National Museum of the Royal Navy is also part of the Dockyard, and it looked rather large and impressive, but I simply did not have time to go in (assuming we don’t lose our stupidly small and awkwardly sized tickets, we’ll probably head back to the Dockyard within the next few months), so I think it would be quite easy to spend two days at the Dockyard, particularly if you have children.  Though I felt the main ships (Victory and Warrior) were kind of a mixed-bag, though certainly historically significant, and worth seeing for that reason alone, I really loved the Mary Rose Museum, and it made me slightly less salty about the admission price (though only slightly, I mean £26!?).  I think the Dockyard as a whole should get a 3.5/5, though I’d probably rate Mary Rose as a 4/5, easily.  Not at all a bad day out, if you can stomach the price.

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3 comments

  1. The Mary Rose museum looks absolutely fascinating, especially (if a bit ghoulishly) the remains and their medical history.

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