How does conservation affect display? Part One

For my MA dissertation (recently handed in), I looked at the communication of archaeological material in museum display. I had initially wanted to explore whether new finds or new theory was the driving factor behind the change in display techniques, but after visiting my case study museums I realised that new conservation techniques had made a significant impact.

One strong example of the effect of conservation on display is the excavated wooden ship. Whether a Viking longboat, Tudor warship or medieval Swedish warship, modern excavations of sunken ships have allowed conservation of water-logged wood to progress to such a stage that display has had to adapt very quickly to new requirements. These ships are extremely large artefacts, requiring careful consideration of conditions, space, and lighting. The conservation process was slow, taking decades to try and stabilise the wood after hundreds of years covered in soil and sea-water. At various stages, the process looks better than at others, and trying to display such a changing object must be incredibly challenging. New techniques include freeze drying, dramatically speeding up the process and stabilising the wood for transport. In this and the following post, I’ll use three conserved ships as examples of displaying difficult artefacts: the Mary Rose, the Vasa, and the Skuldelev VI which featured in the British Museum’s exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend. Today I’ll just talk about the Mary Rose.

The ‘work in progress’–The Mary Rose

On 19 July 1545, the Tudor warship Mary Rose sank in the Solent, taking all but 35 men with her. The pride of Henry VIII’s fleet, the sinking of the Mary Rose is a major historic event. The discovery and recovery of the Mary Rose is a major museum event for the UK, and was the largest recovery effort to take place in the region. The ship sank and landed on its side, with the major consequence of having one side exposed to the ocean. The covered side has been preserved under a layer of oxygen-free silt, and the material culture recovered is astonishing. What has been recovered is in an amazing condition, and has been conserved beautifully.

The ship's bell, in a remarkable state of preservation, welcomes you to the museum
The ship’s bell, in a remarkable state of preservation, welcomes you to the museum

A striking example of the finds from the ship include the ship’s bell. It is in an amazing condition, with the date still visible and clear. It is a haunting welcome to the exhibition in the new Mary Rose museum. It seems like it should still ring loud, and so its silence is actually quite striking. It’s stillness is an effective means of communicating the loss of life that occurred with the sinking of the ship. The collection is a disaster context, and so it is a frozen moment in time, and importantly, not one curated by survivors as with grave goods.

Many objects in the exhibition are moving, fascinating, stomach-churning (medieval syringes, I’ll say no more) and baffling. The way the objects have been displayed allows them to tell their own story. Many of the objects are recognisable through their function – combs, knives, tankards etc.

Displays of material culture are grouped together
Displays of material culture are grouped together

The ship itself presents a different problem. Conservation of this incredibly large object had to be carefully managed at all times. ‘Passive’ storage was used to halt any further deterioration once the objects were out of the water. Once that phase was complete, the ship was sprayed with recycled and filtered water at 2 to 5 °C to keep it from drying out and shrinking. Between 1994 and 2010 two phases of spraying the wood with polyethylene glycol (PEG) to replace the water in the wood and stabilise it. Lessons were learnt from the conservation of the Vasa, which also used PEG. More recently, the final phase of air drying the ship was commenced and is due to be completed next year. (See: JONES, M. 2010. For Future Generations: Conservation of a Tudor Maritime Collection, Mary Rose Trust and the Mary Rose website)

What this leaves is a ship in a sealed room with fluorescent lighting. It is difficult to imaging the ship as it should be, with all the tubes and cords and equipment in front of it. Most people at the museum looked at the objects instead of the ship, I think because they couldn’t imagine the ship.

The ship - very much a 'work in progress'
The ship – very much a ‘work in progress’

When the ship finishes its final phase of conservation, it will be interesting to see how it is displayed. Based on the quality of the material culture display, it will be very exciting and beautifully designed. They’ve clearly learnt much from the Vasa, which I’ll talk about next week, but the experience of Tudor England, albeit it at sea, does come across strongly. One of the loveliest examples of material culture is the douçaine, a medieval woodwind instrument like an early form of an oboe. The Mary Rose website explains the significance of the find:

This is the earliest one of its kind and is unique in having an extra hole for the thumb, giving it a wider musical range than later shawms. (Mary Rose website)

A recording can be played of the sound of the instrument in the museum.

The quality of conservation has allowed a fascinating museum to emerge. Objects can be displayed in their context, and are based around people from the ship and occupations, rather than material or function.


Next week: part two – the Vasa and Skuldelev VI

Works cited

JONES, M. 2010. For Future Generations: Conservation of a Tudor Maritime Collection, Mary Rose Trust.


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