An exhibit of several hundred things recovered from the Mary Rose, a warship that sank ingloriously a mile from shore in 1545, opens today at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall.
The prince of Wales, chief figurehead of the project recovering the ship with her archeological treasure, has written:
". . . We are able, for once, to transform a contemporary disaster into a victory in terms of human awareness."
This is clumsy language, unworthy of a prince who has justly earned a reputation for wit and good sense. The sinking of the Mary Rose was a disaster, keeling over and sinking like a rock within one minute, but the mere recovery of her medical instruments, her dozens of longbows, coins, sundials and so forth hardly constitutes a transmutation into victory.
She illustrates, on the contrary, the common disaster of man. Seven hundred men set out in her from Portsmouth, England, and when she sank barely offshore 670 of them drowned inside her. This is the common disaster of imbecile designers and planners. It is now believed that when she was refitted (she had been on the water several decades before) she was made top-heavy by the new guns and increased loads.
The lesson here is not that a bunch of skin divers can translate a disaster into a triumph -- it is far otherwise -- but that ships and institutions can get top-heavy and sink like a stone. Her protective measures destroyed her. Never mind if a few hundred nerds die in the experiment.
There are some fine things in Explorers Hall. We did not know before the raising of the ship two years ago just what a Tudor physician's kit looked like. The 64 medical instruments of the Mary Rose now show us, and among them is a nice wooden mallet with which to conk a sailor requiring anesthetic, so that he would feel no pain or, more to the point, stop howling.
The bows, surprisingly, are good as new. They can be, and have been, restrung and shot. They look very like the bow I made at a summer camp at the age of 9, and of the same wood (yew, of course) and of the same clumsiness of planing. It is worth reflecting, by the way, that such simple devices can win battles at Crecy or Poitiers or Agincourt, against all the massed power of France.
A lot of sundials were found. They were as common, apparently, as Seiko watches and about the same size. The label says some of them may also have served as pomanders, with fragrant herbs stuffed beneath the dial. A peculiarly dumb label. Pomanders, or any other perfumes, were not made with herbs like thyme, but with spices and fixatives, and the quarter-teaspoon cavity of the watches or sundials would not hold enough herbs to be smelt.
We learn in this exhibit that an anchor cable looks almost exactly like cables of rope on ships today. In World War II on a Javanese ship I once slept for a few weeks on a coiled cable just like the one recovered from the Mary Rose. Ropes are more comfortable to sleep on than ship decks full of feet.
Archeologists, it goes without saying, like all other humans, commonly exaggerate the importance of their sweats, and I am not nearly so sure as the Mary Rose people are that their recovered objects add fantastically to the world's store of knowledge.
Some pewter dishes were recovered, for example, that are described as "elegant," a word singularly wrong for discs of base metal, manufactured for one good reason, that they were cheaper than silver or china. You can call them elegant, maybe, in comparison to plastic wrappers from which food is commonly eaten now.
The charm of the show inheres almost entirely in the fact that these objects once belonged to living men, and have survived in the mud off Portsmouth for so long with so little deterioration.
And now a complaint about something I think damages the whole effect of so many fascinating objects. There are gold coins inside the cases, or at least replicas of those coins, exact copies, but who needs them?
Anybody going to the Geographic has seen gold coins. If anybody needs to know what a coin looks like, photographs might be better than imitations, especially since they are too far from the eye to see them well.
Outside the building, at the entrance on 17th Street, are replicas of two cannon found in the ship. I do not question the claim that they are indistinguishable from the originals, and needless to say they are labeled as replicas. All the same, I dislike seeing copies at the Geographic.
It may be we live in an age of "as good as" and "indistinguishable from" and "almost the same." I do not, however, see much point going to see fakes at museums. If the replicas are good enough to serve as educational visual aids (they will be talking like that within the decade, probably) then why not have a fiber glass roc egg (the Aepyornis egg near the entrance) or a fiber glass Cameroons frog, or imitations of all the other things displayed at the Geographic? The egg and the frog are supposedly genuine, and the cannon and the coins of the Mary Rose are labeled replicas, so there is no intent to deceive.
Unlike the great Etruscan Warriors of the Metropolitan Museum, that were proved to be mere frauds intended to deceive (and removed, of course, once this was known).
I can live without fake Tudor bronze cannon and without fake Tudor coins, and the fact that "you can't tell the difference" is not the question. You can't tell the difference between fact and falseness in words, either, and yet at the last it seems to make a difference, somehow.
A replica of the Magna Carta or the Constitution is all very well in a place mat or a decoration for a rumpus room, but it is not all right in a museum, even if the imitations are clearly labeled so.
It is all too easy to introduce bear grease to that long and slippery chute that leads to vagueness, impenetrable ambiguity, and at last fraud. And the prince of Wales should stop talking about disasters turned into victories of human awareness, and other sops to jobbernowls. Of course we are not water animals, and too much futzing about on ships, or too much diving (the prince often dived to this wreck of the Mary Rose) is Not Good. It commonly screws up the ears, and as anybody may readily observe, the tongue.
The Mary Rose, by the way, was named for a sister of Henry VIII, not that other Mary who was his daughter. Another note: It is hardly true that the sinking of the Mary Rose was so frightful a disaster as the Mary Rose people like to say. Sailors commonly drown, and to do it in a minute is not the worst of fates. A better fate, surely, than the 2,000 teen-agers who died on the Sultana just out of the Memphis harbor in 1865, when they thought they were going home again after horror in a military prison, and most of whom were burned alive when the ship exploded. A certain temperance of judgment is well in these things, and the loss of 670 men a mile off the shore while King Henry VIII watched from Southsea Castle is more nearly par for the course than an outstanding example of man's fate.