Mary Rose Museum, Royal Navy Dockyard, Portsmouth

Introduction

In 1545 the Mary Rose, the cherished flagship of Henry VIII, keeled over and sank in Portsmouth harbour while harrying the French navy in the Battle of the Solent. The ship lay on the bed of the Solent, undiscovered for over 400 years. When it was raised in 1982 it proved to be an archaeological sensation; the hull and the contents of the ship - almost 22,000 well-preserved items of Tudor life ranging from shoes, pocket watches, medical apparatus and musical instruments - had been almost miraculously preserved, buried in clay on the seabed beneath preserving layers of silt.

This significant and important piece of history – the only 16th Century warship together with the largest collection of Tudor artefacts in the world - is now in display in a new museum designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects, with Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will as architect for the interior. Its home, set in an elliptical 18th century dry dock, is in Portsmouth, in the historic Royal Navy Dockyard alongside other magnificent warships and next to Nelson’s HMS Victory.

The raising of the Mary Rose had presented some pressing problems of how to preserve these artefacts while presenting them to the public. The remains of the ship and its contents are vulnerable and required delicate conservation, yet are the subjects of intense curiosity; they had to be both protected and exhibited. The architect had to address conservation requirements, formulate a strategy for displaying the ship and its contents and organise spaces and circulation routes.

 

Conservation

The conservation requirements were significant. When the starboard hull, a huge 20 x 13 metre section of massive oak members weighing 280 tonnes, had been raised from the sea in 1982 (other parts had been left underwater) it was moved to the historic dry dock in Portsmouth dockyard, where it has remained ever since. Underwater for 400 years, the hull was saturated with about 120 tonnes of seawater. The drying process critical to preserving it began in 1994; for the last 19 years it has been continuously sprayed with polyethylene glycol, a water-soluble chemical solution, to strengthen the timber fabric cells and seal the surfaces of the timbers, a process which only concluded in April 2013. To aid the drying process, the hull had to be contained within a tent-like structure which maintained a constant temperature of 28 degrees C and the new museum had to be constructed around this temporary enclosure while the drying process continued. When the hull finally dries out in 2017, the enclosure, studwork walls and windows will be removed, allowing visitors to see the historic timbers at close quarters.

A further constraint was the dry dock itself; as a scheduled ancient monument, pile foundations could not be driven into it.

 

The design

With its inclined dark-stained timber-clad walls and prow-like balcony, all topped by a gently domed roof, the museum has a distinctly ship-like form. But, as director Chris Wilkinson explains: ‘The museum’s shape is generated from toroid geometry that is inspired by the form of a hull but not necessarily designed to imitate it’. The shape was also driven by technical constraints. As the dry dock itself was a scheduled ancient monument, pile foundations could not be driven into it which meant that the structure had top span across it, resulting in a lower building but one of a nautical form and scale.

The modest hull-like exterior encloses an interior that not only protects and exhibits the Mary Rose and her treasures, but by means of a brilliant design strategy, helps to recreate the experience of being aboard a ship of that period. On one side of the hull-like enclosure is positioned the salvaged starboard hull. On the other, port, side is a virtual hull, an abstraction of the original with GRG walls, set on three levels and housing galleries containing the salvaged objects from the ship. Between the starboard and port hulls, three levels of central walkways rise, giving visitors a chance to see on one side the salvaged hull and on the other side, the treasures of the ship. The three walkways and their galleries reflect parallel conditions on ship; the lowest is dark and low ceilinged with a claustrophobic feel, while the uppermost top-deck gallery is lighter and more spacious. To aid conservation, light levels are relatively low as they would have been in the original below-deck conditions of the ship at the time. The three galleries are connected to large semi-elliptical end galleries and a balcony to the west offers a spectacular vantage point over the Royal Navy dockyard and its numerous 18th and 19th century Grade I and II* listed buildings.

 

Use of timber

The simple elliptical form of the new building is derived from toroidal geometry and echoes the original shape of the Mary Rose. The curved walls are clad with planks of western red cedar, chosen for its functionality and durability. They were laid to mimic the carvel boat construction method of the 16th century where timbers were fixed with a minimal joint to allow expansion and to avoid overlapping - a technique used on the Mary Rose itself.

The 22mm thick cedar planks were fixed to 38mm softwood vertical battens and 38mm horizontal battens fixed to breather membrane on 18mm plywood sheeting, with blown mineral wool insulation filling the space between the plywood and the inner lining.

The 38mm vertical support battens follow the inclined plane shape of the facades and were fixed parallel to each other and at equal centres of 600mm. The starter course, the first row of cedar planks were then fixed; the starter course planks were laid horizontally at the centre of the north/south facades, with the row starting to slope gently upwards as it reached the two ends. Subsequent rows of planks were laid parallel to the starter course with a consistent reveal. The random appearance of the cladding was created by using planks of different lengths and widths; lengths of 1500, 200 and 2500mm and widths of 150, 200 and 150mm were set in random arrangements. The planks were fixed to the battens with paired ring shank nails at 600mm centres. The paired exposed black coach screws and washers were randomly introduced at plank ends.

The planks are stained with Solignum, a proprietary architectural stain suitable for coastal environments; its distinctive dark neutral tone reflects the colour of English vernacular boat shed architecture and gives a sombre, neutral tone to the building, in sharp contrast to the exuberant detail of the Victory‘s varnished hull just alongside. At intervals, carved into the timber planks are inscriptions drawn from the ciphers used by the crew of the Mary Rose to identify their personal belongings, further embedding the building in its maritime heritage.

The shallow curve of the main roof is covered with an aluminium standing seam system with a zinc finish. The seams run parallel to the narrower length of the building and particular attention was paid to the detailing to resolve the water ingress issue at shallower ends of the roof to the east and west.

To emphasise the simple elegance of the building geometry, all details have been designed to be as clean as possible. At the transition between the roof and the external wall, a birdsmouth detail was introduced to emphasise the edge of the roof. The birdsmouth is formed of folded plates of galvanised steel sheet; the double curvature of their form was developed by means of a 3-D model and several mock-ups were constructed to determine feasibility before the plates were laser cut. They are clad with western red cedar planks to match the curved wall below.

Completion Date:

May 2013

Year Published:

October 2013

Building Type:

Museum

Location:

Royal Navy Dockyard, Portsmouth

Architect:

Wilkinson Eyre Architects

Architect For The Interior:

Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will

Structural and M&E Engineer:

Ramboll

Project Manager:

GVA Second London Wall

Quantity Surveyor:

Davis Langdon

Main Contractor:

Warings

External Timber:

BCL Timber Projects Ltd

Joinery:

Hadleys Shopfitters

Timber Supplier:

Palmer Timber

Timber Elements:

Cladding Timber species: Western red cedar

Awards:

Wood Awards shortlist 2013. World Architectural Festival shortlist 2013.

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