The Mary Rose and the media

Raising the ship was only half the battle – the challenge now is to raise her profile

Artist’s impression of the new Mary Rose museum

Rear Admiral John Lippiett CB MBE, Chief Executive of The Mary Rose Trust, discusses the Mary Rose 500 Appeal

Photo: Wilkinson Eyre Architects

Ask people of a certain age what they remember of the raising of the Mary Rose from the seabed in October 1982, and they will almost certainly say, ‘ Wasn’t it exciting!’ To which I retort, actually no – it was slow, little showed of the ship when it finally emerged, and the only excitement was when a strop broke and the world held its breath for a few seconds, expecting the wreck to plummet back to the bottom. It was brilliant PR, and the BBC regard this as one of their iconic TV outside broadcasts, watched by over 60 million.

A public relations challenge

So the Mary Rose is known to many, but the views they hold are varied and often erroneous. For many, it is just a few rotting timbers that should be taken out and sunk, or even burnt as firewood. For others, it is an old ship that sank on its maiden voyage (a myth widely held, connecting it to the Swedish ship Vasa that was raised some twenty years beforehand).

The challenge has always been to inform the public that the Mary Rose is much more than just half a soggy ship. She is of great national significance. The message that we seek to hammer home is that she is the first warship of this nation’s standing navy, built exactly 500 years ago only a few yards from where she now sits in her dry dock. She served for 34 years and fought three wars against the French. In July 1545 she sank while leading the English fleet into battle against a French fleet that was much bigger than the Spanish Armada and carrying a huge invasion army. The broadside that the Mary Rose fired was probably the first to be fired in anger in naval history, and of course it contributed to her downfall.

A ship full of treasures While she is now the world’s only sixteenth- century warship on display, it is her contents that are truly unique. To quote David Starkey, ‘They give us the world’s finest insight into life 500 years ago.’ We have the spectacular longbows, the bronze and wrought iron guns with all the accompanying equipment, as well as the professional tools of the carpenter, barber surgeon and
pilot. History has been and still is being rewritten as research reveals new aspects. For example, historians said that the gimballed compass and the ship’s log did not arrive until mid eighteenth century, yet from the Mary Rose we have three compasses and the log reel. And we now know that the longbow could pull twice the weight that was previously thought possible.

These would be treasures indeed, but visitors are often more attracted by the insights into everyday life, the cooking implements, clothing and shoes. While pewter can be seen elsewhere, though not in such quantity, the wooden items such as bowls, spoons, tankards, and the peppermill are utterly remarkable. Visitors are surprised to see violins (the earliest known examples), tabor pipes and drum, and the still shawm (the predecessor of the oboe, and the only example in the world). Most are amazed to find a backgammon board, and then squeal with delight when they see the tiny dice that go with it. Nineteen thousand artefacts, many of which are unique, form the extraordinary treasure that is the Mary Rose.

Formidable funding challenges

Admirable as all this is, the Mary Rose Trust has fought for the last thirty years for survival without any government funding. The conservation process, now very nearly finished, has always created a considerable operational deficit, and the museum (containing just 6% of the artefacts) has struggled to bring in enough visitors to help pay for the operations, let alone the conservation. The new museum, now halfway through being built, is in and over the dry dock in which the ship sits; it will open towards the end of 2012, while the drying out of the hull continues to 2016. Only then will the Trust become sustainable, but the road getting to this stage has been daunting. Our current project to build the museum and complete the conservation is £35 million, with associated extra costs. The magnificent Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £21 million reflected the huge priority given to this ship, but the matched-funding requirement of £15 million has proved exceptionally tough – and remains so in this difficult economic climate. Just over £12.3 million has been raised to date, but we cannot yet relax. Which is where the media comes in yet again.

Raising the profile

Throughout the life of the Mary Rose 500 Appeal, the Trust has worked hard to gain a higher profile through engaging with all elements of the media. A number of good documentaries, such as Timewatch ‘Secrets of the Dead’, and ‘Ghosts of the Mary Rose’, have furthered the public awareness of the treasures from the ship, and shorter news items have usefully focused on a number of the activities and scientific discoveries emerging from our research. Local and national radio coverage has been regularly achieved, with two substantial interviews on the Today programme probably eliciting the greatest response in fundraising terms, with a pledge of £250,000. The History of the World in 100 Objects included a radio series, and our rosary starred in the first one, as well as in the regional logo for the series.

The Trust has worked with the author Elizabeth Newbery, who wrote a highly successful novel for children, and has more recently worked with the bestselling author C J Sansom in his latest novel Heartstone, set in 1545 and with the hero on board the Mary Rose when she sank. The author has become a very strong devotee of the Mary Rose, and the paperback just published (after the sale of 150,000 hardbacks) has an extra chapter at the end of it telling readers why they should support the Mary Rose.

Looking forward

Hitting the media with new stories is so important to our project. These last few months have seen us launch the new Royal Mint £2 coin (see page 23), depicting the Mary Rose for its five-hundredth anniversary. It goes on general circulation towards the end of 2011, so our campaign now is ‘when you find the Mary Rose in your pocket, would you return it to us please? (PO1 3LX)’! The foundation-stone ceremony in March was a hit, with Prince Harry laying it with panache. More recently, the space shuttle Endeavour took a parrel ball from the Mary Rose into space for its last mission, to ‘celebrate mankind’s 500 years of voyaging’. Thankfully, it returned safely to earth! In June, two astronauts came to perform the topping-out ceremony for the new museum, providing another forward-looking aspect to this 500-year-old icon.

The new Mary Rose Museum will be one of the most important to be opened in this country this century. It will display the ship and over 50% of its contents in a spectacular manner. It will be a sensation both nationally and internationally, and we look forward to working with the media in preparation for this great event. And from now until July 2045, there are going to be five-hundredth anniversaries of something happening on board the Mary Rose every year – so life is not going to be dull in the future!