Mary Rose re-visited

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a model of what the Mary Rose might have looked like

a model of what the Mary Rose might have looked like

Barely 11 months ago, the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard opened to much fanfare and press coverage.  What has the visitor reaction been? How many of us have visited it and what are the future plans?

Back last year when the museum opened, press from around the world had descended on Portsmouth. There were press briefings on different days because the interest in the museum was so great. My sister in Australia had seen programmes about the ship. I was told that holidaymakers in the Greek islands saw coverage on local Greek television not just the international channels like BBC World, CNN or Al Jazeera. Under our previous name, CD-Traveller, we ran a story and a photorial, justified because of the huge array of exhibits which we thought we knew about but which the Mary Rose explained.  It is estimated that a billion people saw the news stories which is a staggering 14% of the entire world’s population!

Is it little wonder then, that it has been nominated one of the six finalists for the Art Fund’s £100,000 Museum of the Year.

As the Mary Rose Museum looks like from HMS Victory

As the Mary Rose Museum looks like from HMS Victory

A year on then have we the visitor responded to the news blitz? The answer is that we certainly have. With one month to go before the first year is up, over 425,000 people will have visited the Mary Rose. That’s not the Historic Dockyard itself which contains such well-known ships as HMS Victory and HMS Warrior but just the Mary Rose. The dockyard as a whole has had over 700,000 visitors which is virtually double the year before. It must be the Mary Rose effect!

The figure might have been even higher because for five days the dockyard was closed due to health and safety concerns over the storms that raged around Christmas and January. Then the main railway from London was blocked and that affected visitor numbers as well as I was told that quite a lot of visitors use the train to visit. Given that you can get a 2 for 1 entry pass if you travel by train, to lose that service for a few weeks due to a landslip probably put paid to hopes of 500,000 visitors in their first year.

The Wednesday before Easter was their peak day when 3,500 people looked over the museum and the 8,000 artefacts that are on permanent display.   And where had they come from? You might think that the appeal would be to ex-military people, those from maritime families or locals from the Portsmouth/Southsea/Southampton/ southern Hampshire area but we are travelling from much further away. About 10% of all the visitors are from abroad. Given that Portsmouth is a ferry port to Europe and a burgeoning cruise terminal this percentage will only rise over the years as more people put the Mary Rose on their “must-do” lists.  From the UK, people and parties are coming from South Wales, the Midlands and as far as the west country. They are spending a whole day in the dockyard and hours in the Mary Rose itself.

Hatch was a dog whose skelton was found on the ship. Now a toy is avaliable to rememberv the ship's dog

Hatch was a dog whose skelton was found on the ship. Now a toy Hatch is avaliable to remember the ship’s dog

When Margaret Rule, who led the team that raised the Mary Rose thirty years ago from the Solent mud in which she lay, went around the museum before it opened she said that visitors would spend far more time than the hour people expected. How right she was!

And that is an issue. As I said, originally it was thought that people would spend an hour or so looking around and then head for the shop or the café. Not so. The average visit is more like 90 minutes and some people are spending four hours looking around the exhibits and listening to the commentary points staged around the floors. Some people were spending an hour on just the first floor. The conclusion is that once people arrive they become absorbed by the stories of the exhibits and the enthusiasm of the volunteers dressed in period costume or others who are there to act as guides and question answerers. When I went round the museum there were groups of people at every commentary point. Since some of those commentarries run for many minutes it explains why people are taking longer than expected. It also shows a level of interest that perhaps the organisers didn’t appreciate before the Mary Rose opened.

The museum operates a “one-way” approach to guiding visitors through the exhibit so that as many people as possible can see the exhibits and make-way for those that follow. Comment and the completed customer satisfaction forms suggest that some people prefer to wander back and forth. Whether they do or not, it shows that this museum is listening to what its visitors are saying. More seats have been placed around the exhibits, bigger signage has been installed and more kids’ trails mapped out.

On the whole though people are satisfied with what they see. Those saying that they are satisfied or very satisfied is running at 93% and- if you believe TripAdvisor – 90% of people are giving the museum either four or five stars.

the cafe might be empty but it is very popular. Luckily there are several more in the Dockyard

the cafe might be empty in this image but it is very popular. Luckily there are several more in the Dockyard

So when should you visit? I suggest the middle of the week if you want quite a bit of time looking around. It’s less busy than at weekends  and you will find out that you will spend more time there than you think.

A sure sign of how popular an attraction has become is the sale of its guidebook. If people feel that they haven’t had value-for-money they don’t buy it. At the Mary Rose, the guidebook is the biggest seller but visitors also demanded a more in-depth book that chronicled the whole story. Now there is one and that is selling well. The next best seller may surprise you. It’s ale. The management scoured brewers to find an ale that would be unique to them. They didn’t want an ale that had just got a Mary Rose label stuck over the top of something that you could buy in any supermarket. So a husband and wife team from Devon has produced an ale that -for once – you can say is unique.  And I saw bottles being sold and sold whilst I was there last week. Some people got no further than the benches outside and were downing them there!

Obviously there is an educational element to the Mary Rose. Over 30,000 school children have so far visited the museum and some of those have come from as far afield as South Wales. But if avoiding schoolchildren is your aim than try after 2pm and you’ll still have two-and-a-half hours to enjoy it. I suspect in the hight of Summer, the opening hours may lengthen.

and the Mary Rose itself. But how more does the Solent silt possess?

and the Mary Rose itself. But how much more does the Solent silt possess?

This year, the emphasis is on the conservation of the relics. Lying on the Solent for hundreds of years means that items need to be carefully considered. The smell of tarred rope and peppercorns is still there to behold. But conservation takes money and the Mary Rose must become self-financing as soon as possible as there is a shortfall of £400,000 to be found every year. Luckily interest is high, the Heritage Lottery Fund has come to the party and many visitors are becoming “Friends.”

They are helped by having over ninety volunteers that they museum can call upon and at least twelve are on duty to help you get the most from your visit.  Volunteers are the backbone of many museums and the Mary Rose is no exception. They help to bring alive a ship the like of which you won’t find anywhere else.

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