Mega microscope to protect maritime history


26 January 2021
The Mary Rose (photographer: Johnny Black) The Mary Rose (photographer: Johnny Black)
Nearly £100K of funding has been awarded to help ensure the Mary Rose and other historic ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard are protected for years to come.

The funding has been awarded to the University of Portsmouth, in partnership with the Mary Rose Trust, for state-of-the-art digital microscopy equipment. It is funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Capability for Collections fund, part of the UK Research and Innovation’s World Class Labs funding scheme.

This equipment will provide information about the structure and composition of artefacts that can reveal far more about their origins and how to preserve them, than observation alone. The collaboration will help care for some of the most important collections associated with UK maritime heritage, which also include HMS Victory, Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, and HMS Warrior, Britain’s first iron-hulled battleship.

Dr James Darling, from the School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, said, “Improving our understanding of the historical and cultural significance of these artefacts often requires highly detailed study at a microscopic scale. While in fantastic condition considering their age, sadly some deterioration has occurred due to the environment they have been subjected to. The only way to keep abreast of this deterioration and prevent any further progression is to fully understand the materials and how they have interacted with the environment.

"This project will allow conservation and curatorial experts to carry out detailed and wide-ranging analysis of artefacts in these collections, which will ensure they are fully preserved for future generations.”

A unique aspect of this project is that advanced microscopy capabilities will be seamlessly linked between the museums and laboratories at the University; providing rapid access to the University’s state of the art electron and X-ray microscopy facilities for advanced materials characterisation.

The Mary Rose sank in the Solent in 1545 into very fine silt, which meant much of the ship and the items on board were well preserved.

Professor Eleanor Schofield, Head of Conservation and Collections Care at the Mary Rose Trust and visiting Professor at the University of Portsmouth, said, "Nature preserved her for 500 years, it’s now our turn to use the advanced technology available to us to preserve her for many years to come. There is so much rich history and a tremendous diversity of materials from Henry VIII’s flagship – from large bronze cannons on wooden gun carriages to personal items such as leather boots, gold coins, medicine flasks and wooden dishes – which are incredibly important to protect."

The new digital microscope facilities will also give museum visitors a chance to trace the origins, history and conservation of historic artefacts in a level of detail far beyond eyesight alone. The facilities will also be used widely for demonstrations at outreach events for organisations and schools, once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC Executive Chair, said, “AHRC are proud to support the Capability for Collections (CapCo) Fund as a landmark investment in our galleries, libraries, archives, museums and special collections. Our Collections organisations form the backbone of our heritage economy and act as a vital resource and source of inspiration for many diverse researchers. They are important drivers of innovation and maintaining and supporting them helps to create a healthier, more resilient society. AHRC recognises that investment in maintaining and improving research facilities will support and maintain these organisations in a vital way at a time when they are most vulnerable.”

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