The new home for the Mary Rose is marred by its ship-like design, but the excellent interiors show off the vessel's remains and relics to their full advantage
‘It’s elegant enough, but cannot compare with the real thing’: Wilkinson Eyre Architects’ new £27m Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth, alongside HMS Victory (far right). Photograph: Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Architects like few things more than a nice boat. Le Corbusier wanted his buildings to resemble ocean liners, from their spare railings and horizontal windows to their ability to compress much of human life – eating, sleeping, partying – within a single structure. Hi-tech architects loved the spareness of masts and rigging. At the media centre for Lord's cricket ground, yacht-building techniques were used, with splendour and illogic, to achieve an aluminium pod floating high in the air, as if awaiting both a future Noah and an extreme case of rain stopping play.
The appeal is in the purposefulness of boat design, the elegance that comes from performing exacting tasks well. Architects secretly fret that their twiddles and swoops may not mean very much; on a boat, design decisions are a matter of life and death. Get it wrong and it will sink. The demands of floating give permission to use exotic materials and techniques which are superfluous on land.
So it is no great surprise that Wilkinson Eyre Architects' new Mary Rose museum, a £27m project in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, looks, with its elliptical boarded exterior, somewhat ship-like. And I wish it didn't. It's elegant enough, but cannot compare with the real thing: just opposite is HMS Victory, whose magnificent compound curves resolve the dynamics of water and wind, the resilience of timber, and the logistics of housing hundreds of men and weapons into a single astonishing object.
In general, structures in the Portsmouth docks follow a simple rule – if they're designed to float they use curves, if to stand they're rectangular – and the museum might have done better to follow it. It's a case of the common architectural fallacy that the container should look like the thing contained, which is as logical as building a ship out of bricks.
But enough of the shape, which is not the most important thing about this project. The main events are the hulk of the Mary Rose and the exhibition of its contents, in an interior by Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will. The Mary Rose was a flagship of Henry VIII, which sank in 1545 – not, as is commonly said, on its maiden voyage but after 34 years of service. Almost all of its 500-man crew went down with it, along with their tools, clothes, weapons, eating utensils, food, medical implements, musical instruments, games and in some cases pets.
Some of this haul has rotted away, but enough has been preserved by silt to create what the chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust, John Lippiett, says "is better than Pompeii". He's exaggerating, but it provides the Pompeii-like fascination of seeing the intimate objects of the daily life of centuries ago, in some cases barely changed. You can see how roughly things of use were hacked out of wood and leather, and wince at an eye-watering penile catheter. You can ponder the skeleton of a dog, and fiddles, bellows and signet rings.
A large part of the building is a hall in which the impressive remnant of the Mary Rose lies, which is still undergoing a decades-long process of careful preservation, curing like a giant kipper. Visitors won't be allowed in this space for a few years yet, so you glimpse it through windows in a temporary wall. Eventually the wall will come down, and what are now corridors will become open galleries. About half of the hull – the starboard side – is what remains, the idea being that a memory of the missing port side will be provided by the arrangement of the building opposite.
Otherwise you pass through a series of rooms which are dimly lit, both for conservation reasons and to create some impression of the dark life lived below decks. They are also smallish, again to echo the original conditions, which may not be such a good idea. It could get hellish when school parties are yelping their way around.
The displays are full of stuff, making the most of their abundant material, and the stated intention is for "the artefacts to speak for themselves", for which four cheers. There is a minimum of interpretative drivel or theatrical infotainment. You can look at a shoe or a gun and see what it is, without an intrusive curatorial voice telling you what to think. The objects are generally evocative enough on their own.
Everything you see is real, except where Perspex is used to outline missing sections of exhibits, and where modern techniques are used to reconstruct the appearance of people from their bones. There is a scary-looking archer, massively broad-shouldered and slightly deformed, who successfully gives some sense of the lives in this ship. Here things get a bit Disney, but the ends justify the means.
The exhibits rather than the architecture star, which is as it should be, the only quibble being that this principle is taken to the point of blandness. It should be possible to articulate the transition from the exterior daylit present to the dark interior past in a richer way than is in fact the case – the intermediate spaces of lobbies and cafes are zones of white paint and glass such as you might find in a good quality hotel or office. Some of the energy that went into making the building a quasi-boat could usefully have gone into these.
The Mary Rose museum is significantly better than some comparable buildings, including last year's catastrophic Cutty Sark conservation project in Greenwich, and another nautically inspired Portsmouth monument, the 170-metre Spinnaker Tower, which almost makes Anish Kapoor's Olympic Orbit look good.
Wilkinson Eyre's building is also better than an earlier stab at designing the Mary Rose museum, when Prince Charles used his position as president of the Mary Rose Trust to bring about the commissioning of one of his pet architects, Christopher Alexander. It was a strange melange of traditional motifs first proposed more than 20 years ago that never got anywhere – as often happens when the prince gets involved, the main effect is delay.
The bar, in other words, is not set high, and the new museum exceeds it. It succeeds by being responsible and conscientious. Is it too much to ask, though, that architects respond to something as wonderful as the Mary Rose and her trove with something that is neither a work of distracting egomania nor an exercise in blamelessness, but something that enriches the experience of witnessing these evocative objects?
by Rowan Moore