Conservation United Kingdom

New home for Mary Rose

Purpose-built museum opens, showing ship’s hull and recovered artefacts—from anchors to nit combs

The museum has been built around the ship’s hull in Portsmouth’s dockyard

A remarkable maritime conservation story will enter its final phase this month when Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, goes on show in its own permanent museum on 31 May—more than 30 years after the vessel was lifted from the seabed.

For conservation reasons, chemical sprays have shrouded the 16th-century hull in mist, but these will be turned off for the first time in three decades so that the hull can be be air-dried. In the culmination of one of the world’s largest artefact conservation projects, the 35-metre hull will be reunited with thousands of objects. These range from ornate bronze guns and massive anchors to finely tooled calfskin book-bindings and wooden rosaries. There is even a leather boot.

The Heritage Lottery Fund is a long-term supporter of the Mary Rose Trust, the charitable organisation responsible for the preservation and display of the ship and its artefacts. In addition to a £23m investment, the fund has awarded £9.5m in other grants over the past 18 years. A public appeal brought the final sum to £35m.

The Tudor ship has been in dry dock, where it has been sprayed constantly to prevent shrinking and warping, since it was raised in 1982. The ship was initially sprayed with chilled freshwater to desalinate its oak timbers. Since 1994, it has been treated with a solution of polyethylene glycol (PEG), a wax, to gradually replace the water content and provide mechanical stability.

This method of treating waterlogged wood was pioneered on the 17th-century warship Vasa in Stockholm in the 1970s and 1980s. A weaker solution of PEG first penetrates the timbers, stabilising their structure. A second, more concentrated solution seals the outer layers. Smaller artefacts are soaked in the same solutions before a controlled drying process takes place.

Conservators, however, still fear degradation caused by sulphuric acids within the ship’s timbers; the Vasa suffered a similar problem. Conservators are working with scientists from the University of Kent on long-term preservation measures to remove or reduce the impact of these compounds.

The ship will be air-dried in a “hot box”, with tubes directing dried air across all parts of the hull. During this process, visitors will be able to see the hull through a series of windows. Once the ship is dry, the internal walls will be removed and the hull will be fully visible. Conservators expect this process to take between four and five years.

Made to measure

The exterior of the new, timber-clad Mary Rose Museum was designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects. The interior is by the firm Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will. The boat-like building sits on the water’s edge in Portsmouth’s dockyard, which is home to other historic warships, including the HMS Victory (1760s) and HMS Warrior (1860s), as well as modern vessels such as the HMS Illustrious and HMS Dauntless.

The museum was built around the ship, which still rests on the lifting frame upon which it was raised. A low, shell-like roof structure was prefabricated and lifted into place. The new construction will act as a giant “air lock” to protect the hull during its final drying-out phase, when visitor numbers will be strictly controlled. Inside, the floor drops dramatically to reveal the dry dock in which the remains of the Mary Rose sit. Some of the ghostly drama of its old, murky setting is being recreated using professional theatrical lighting.

Salvaged skeletons

A third of the ship is preserved intact. This is largely the starboard side, upon which it came to rest in the Solent (the strait separating the Isle of Wight from mainland England); the rest was eroded by strong tides and micro-organisms. It sits upright, its decks jagged but largely complete, revealing the intricate detail of Tudor shipbuilders and gun ports open for battle. The Mary Rose, said to have been named after Henry VIII’s sister, was one of the first purpose-built warships. Why the ship sank as it set out to fight a French fleet off the coast of Portsmouth in 1545 remains a mystery.

More than 19,000 artefacts have been recovered from the ship (many remain on the seabed, including a significant portion of the port-side bow structure). Some of the ship’s contents—and several of its seamen’s reassembled skeletons—are displayed in three deck-like galleries alongside the hull, roughly corresponding to their original locations on board. These are the possessions of the crew, ranging from the heroic (dagger handles) to the mundane (nit combs). They have defied the usual laws of conservation, as it is the delicate organic objects that have survived in the anaerobic silt of the Solent; iron eroded first.

Salvaged objects were treated in a facility at the dockyard, where huge numbers of items made from wood, leather, iron and fabric have been conserved using a system of soaking, spraying, freeze-drying and air-drying. The treatment has been so successful that the conservation team, which now accepts work from abroad, has become a frontrunner in maritime conservation.

Henry VIII’s warship: launched,sunk… survived

• Built in 1509 by Henry VIII
• Launched in 1511
• Named after his favourite sister, Mary
• Served 34 years as Henry VIII’s flagship vessel
• Sank during a battle with the French in the Solent in July 1545
• Only 25 to 30 members of the 415-strong crew, many of whom were in their late teens or early 20s, survived
• First attempt to raise the ship came in August 1545
• Wreck site discovered by pioneer divers John and Charles Deane in 1836
• Wreck rediscovered in May 1971 by a team led by Alexander McKee
• Raised from the seabed in 1982
• More than 19,000 artefacts have been recovered


The recovered artefacts include coins, a belt chain, a bone manicure set, a wooden comb and pomander, a tankard and a rosary
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