26 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Attractions Management
2013 issue 3

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Leisure Management - All hands on deck

Design project profile

All hands on deck

Designing a building for one of the largest objects ever displayed in a museum over an environmentally-controlled tent were among the challenges for the design team behind the Mary Rose Museum

Kathleen Whyman
The architecture has to be secondary. I see it as a jewellery box, which needs to be interesting and intriguing enough to make you want to in, but the main player is the jewel inside PHOTO: © luke hayes
The virtual hull’s backgrounds are black or dark grey to give the sense of being below deck PHOTO: © hufton + CROW
The first gallery takes visitors back to that fateful day in 1545 and includes a painting of the Mary Rose sinking to set the scene PHOTO: © gareth gardner

Role: Architect and design team leader


Chris Wilkinson
Chris Wilkinson Director Wilkinson Eyre Architects

What’s the setting?
When the Mary Rose was raised 30 years ago, the half of the hull that had been preserved in the mud was placed in a redundant, listed, 18th century dry dock in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (PHD). The dock is an ancient monument in its own right. As with all dry docks, it goes down into the earth quite a long way, as it has a gate that opens out into the harbour.

An environmentally controlled tent, or hot box, was built around the ship, which can’t come down for another five years. We had to build a museum over the top of it, which will remain perfectly intact when the hot box is taken away.

What’s the design?
Our aim was to design a piece of architecture that’s relevant to both its context and contents while creating a certain amount of mystery. What we’re celebrating is the Mary Rose and the thousands of objects found in her. The architecture has to be secondary. I see it as a jewellery box, which needs to be interesting and intriguing enough to make you want to go in, but the main player is the jewel inside.

The architecture starts with the Mary Rose, so the geometry’s based on the hull with an asymmetric shape. It comes out towards the bow, which allows a terrace on the upper level, not dissimilar to the top deck of a ship. The walls are cladded timber and painted black – we needed something that gives longevity and it’s nice to use natural materials.

Working with Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will and Land Design Studio, we created a situation where the half of the Mary Rose’s remaining hull is on one side and a virtual hull containing all the objects is on the other side. Visitors walk down the centre through the context gallery and see the objects in their rightful place. At the moment there are windows looking onto the Mary Rose, but when the hot box is removed visitors will stand in the middle of this huge space with the Mary Rose on one side and the facsimile on the other.

What were the challenges?
There’s no daylight inside the building for conservation reasons and it’s a challenge to provide a major museum without big windows. There are some small cut windows, like gun ports, in secondary spaces such as staff facilities.

The volume of space inside had to be kept to a minimum because the air is so carefully controlled for the preservation of the timber, so we created a low profile dome roof. We also wanted to keep the height down because it sits next to Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. It’s very unusual for architecture to be competing with such a famous ship, but I think the two communicate with each other.

What are you most proud of?
People can be very critical about anything that’s out of the ordinary. When you put your head above the parapet with something like this you have to take the consequences, but it’s been well received. There’s a lot of interest and people are desperately keen to go.

Role: Interior architects


Chris Brandon
Chris Brandon Principal Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will

When did you get involved?
The design competition was announced in 2004. I know the Mary Rose Trust so had been looking out for it – I’m a marine archaeologist and can talk their language, which helped.

Knowing it’d require a powerful team to win, I approached Wilkinson Eyre, as we’d worked with Chris Wilkinson before, and he brought Land Design in.

What’s your design?
Both the visual and physical connection between this extraordinary collection of objects and the ship was the essence of the design. Nature had decreed that half the ship was missing, so we replaced it with a virtual hull where we could put all the wonderful objects back in place in a mirror image. The interpretive galleries that explain what you’ve seen or are about to see go at either end.

We also wanted to explore the ship on a deck-by-deck basis. By luck, ground level was approximately the level of the main deck, from where we could go down to the hold or up to the castle deck. We put two floors in – one above ground and one below, which relate to the deck levels of the ship.

How did you decide on the galleries?
The ship decided for us. Everything relates back to what was on the Mary Rose just before she sank, so the deck levels relate to that specific part of the ship. The ground floor was the main gun deck and the principle deck with fighting areas and living space – the barber’s, surgeon’s and carpenter’s cabins and all the guns. That dictated what was happening in terms of the interpretation and what was displayed.

The lower deck tells the story about storage and cooking – the purser, the cook, what people ate on board, what had to be stored and how that was arranged. Then you go up to the castle deck and it’s all about the officers, archery, rigging and sailing the ship.

What is the design’s aim?
It’s the emotional attachment of being there. The interior’s very dark and the lighting is only on the objects. It’s deliberately claustrophobic to give the sense of being below deck in a ship – the floors aren’t level and you’re visually connected to the objects, which are very close to you. There’s the sound of water slapping against the sides of the ship and the watch bell ringing on the hour. You have the feeling you’re there – not in a Disney-type way, but in a very minimal way. I was really keen not to try and replicate a Tudor ship. We’re letting the objects tell the story, rather than displaying them in a theatrical way.

How did your marine experience help?
Others might not have understood the nuances of what the archeological record meant, but I did. It meant we could display each object in the right place – exactly where it would have been, just before the ship sank, right down to the bricks that built the oven.

Which are you most pleased with?
The context gallery, or virtual hull, with all these objects in it. It’s probably the world’s biggest showcase. It’s the heart of the museum because it’s where all the objects relate to the ship.

"Nature had decreed that half the ship was missing, so we replaced it with a virtual hull and put the objects back"

Role: Exhibition


Peter Higgins
Peter Higgins Creative director Land Design Studio

What was your inspiration?
We had one of the largest objects ever displayed in a museum in the world, which is daunting. The collaborative creative team – Wilkinson Eyre, Land Design Studio, and PBP+W – developed two big ideas, the first being the reflective hull. To help explain it, we liken it to artist Damian Hurst’s dissected cow, so you walk between two hulks of the body. It’s not a great comparison, but people seem to understand through this example.

The Mary Rose is a wonderful snapshot of Tudor history, so our second idea was to assemble everything in the exact place it would have been one minute before she sank.

What was your role?
We were responsible for the total visitor experience that included the visitor sequencing, interpretation and graphics. We worked with Spiral Productions to help inform the communication media.

A very enjoyable part of this seven-year process has been not only working with the design team and the engineers, but also with the incredibly knowledgeable curatorial and conservation team within the Mary Rose Trust.

What’s your interpretation?
There aren’t any labels or waxworks in the reflective hull. Instead, we use the two ends of the visitor experience for interpretive and narrative story telling.

The experience opens with a minute of media showing the horror of what it’s like to suddenly be engulfed in water, followed by the first gallery, which sets the scene. The other galleries have heavy interpretation of this wonderful collection of objects.

We developed character cases, taking members of the crew, such as the master gunner and the carpenter, and show more about them through the cases to help bring those real people to life with objects and displays. Forensic experts have reconstructed their faces with research from the human remains. Video reenactments show how the tools were used and what the people might have looked like, which enhances what otherwise might have been very beautiful, but inert displays.

What were the challenges?
With such a long development period you have to be careful you don’t lose the dynamic of the creative process and that the narrative doesn’t become over analysed. If an idea’s good, don’t change it just because you have time to.

Is there anything you’d change?
When the museum opened, Land Design received no acknowledgment for the exhibition design. We have to convince fellow professionals and journalists of our role as designers and storytellers and help establish respect of our craft and the importance that it has in creating a successful visitor experience.

The Mary Rose Museum is just one element of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s heritage attraction. Forrec’s director, Matt Dawson, details the masterplan he’s drawing up for the whole site


Matt Dawson oversees the masterplan for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Matt Dawson Director Forrec

What work are you doing for PHD?
At Forrec, we’ve been working since September 2012 to develop a visitor experience masterplan for PHD.

As well as the Mary Rose Museum (MRM) – which opened on 31st May – the heritage attraction is home to HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Harbour Tours and interactive Action Stations.

Our masterplan includes recommendations for additional experiences to be added to the site, improvements to the visitor experience, a site-wide interpretation strategy and revenue and business performance analyses.

We’re focusing on the underlying structure of the site’s visitor experience – the mix of programmatic offerings, how people move through the site, the importance of the choreography of time, the correct placement and sizing of visitor amenities and food and retail.

How has the MRM affected the plan?
In terms of exhibition design, technology and interpretation, the MRM sets standards the rest of the site will need to match to meet visitor expectations.

This is a challenge, as some parts of the site haven’t been updated, so the visitor experience is uneven. We’re looking at the attractions that have been there for 20 years to see what we can do. Instead of changing the exhibitions, we may add an overlay to bring it up to date, such as an iPad audio tour.

What are the challenges?
It’s some distance from the entrance gate to the Mary Rose, so the museum serves as an anchor attraction pulling visitors through the site, which is a positive. But it has also brought to light issues such as the lack of seated experiences, shade and rain shelter and other resting areas. We’re looking at all the basic visitor amenities that can make it a more pleasant day out.

What is the aim of the masterplan?
The client realised that while the authority and authenticity of what they offer isn’t in doubt, they need to broaden their appeal beyond their core audience of naval history enthusiasts.

The visitor experience needs to be more engaging, more interactive, more personal and more exciting than it is at present to attract families.

We’re aiming to have the masterplan completed within the next six months and it’ll then be implemented over a five- to 10-year period. The MRM has given the dockyard a bump in attendance and publicity, so it can ride on this for the next year or two. They’re working out now, through this masterplan, what they need to do, so they can start doing it before the initial buzz starts to calm down.


PHOTO: © luke hayes

The Mary Rose Museum sits in a dry dock alongside warship HMS Victory

Originally published in Attractions Management 2013 issue 3

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