On a recent trip to Portsmouth, we were absorbed into the lives of the great ships there, and their rich histories. The Mary Rose Museum shone out for us with its immersive experience and its astonishing recovery of details of the sailors’ lives back in 1545.
The audio tour of the HMS Victory helped us to relive the dramatic and heartrending moments of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fatal injury, his journey to the surgeon’s quarters and his final hours, with his loyal second-in-command Captain Hardy.
The audio narration and dramatic re-enactment engaged us on every level, enabling us to imagine the feelings, sights, sounds and smells of that experience, along with all the emotions of horror and disgust and tragedy and to guess at how the news of victory may have provided some compensation to Nelson for the imminent loss of his life.
HMS Warrior, a magnificent Victorian armoured ship in immaculate condition ‘never fired a gun in anger’. Built in 1860 it ran on half sail half steam.
Now, with Living History actors on board playing the part of the original sailors we felt a real sense of how it must have been to spend time on board as a member of the crew.
Beyond these two wonderful ships, the Mary Rose Museum filled us with awe. Sunk in the Solent in 1545, and raised over four centuries later, the Mary Rose and her story exerts a curious power over us: her many artefacts recovered along with the mortal remains of 129 crew, this exhibition was a truly amazing experience for us. The number of people originally on board at the time of the tragedy is not known for sure and it varies between 500 and 700. It is thought the shop was overloaded, and this may have been one of the factors causing it to sink. The number of survivors is also thought to have been between 35 and 40. They would have chanced to be in the right place on the ship at the right time to escape and be rescued by small boats sent out to save them. Many others were trapped by the “anti-boarding nets” stretched over the decks to prevent the enemy swarming on board. The ship sunk very quickly, and half of it ended up deep in silt so it was preserved.
Now, the recovered part of the timber hull is held in a state of perfect equilibrium, so the timbers no longer need to be sprayed with water or viewed through portholes. Instead, thanks to a fine balance of atmosphere and temperature and a series of air-lock doors, we may gaze at the recovered hull in its entirety, at every deck level.
Most poignant of all are the many objects and possessions of the sailors and the remarkable amount of details about several individuals on board: the Master Gunner, the Master Carpenter, the Pursar, the Archer, the Surgeon – their lives, medical histories and personal items.
I am in awe of the skill, ingenuity and expertise of the archaeologists, the divers, the forensic anthropologists and other scientists and all those who made this exhibition possible, for us to see and imagine and empathise with those many hundreds of people who lost their lives that day in 1545.