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USS Monitor Center – monitorkitty

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From the William & Mary Quarterly, July, 1915, Volume 24, Issue 1 – so writes Robert L. Preston on page 66:

As fifty years have passed since that eventful combat, let us relegate to the rubbish heap all such tales as that the Monitor drove the Merrimac back to Norfolk, never to come out again. Burn up the histories, if they are incorrect, and re-write them. The hot blood of patriotism is excellent in time of war, but in peace by all means let us have the cold facts of history.

If fairy tales are necessary, serve them up to the little tin soldiers and the chocolate-cream generals, who have feasted on them so long. The real soldiers have no taste for them, and the children of the country need plain and simple food.

Now I’m hungry…..

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For those of y’all who’ve wondered where I’ve been lately…..

From The Daily Press

Submerging into history

The USS Monitor Center in Newport New prepares to show off its port to visitors

BY MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON

February 11, 2007

Nobody saw the massive project looming toward the radar screen when The Mariners’ Museum launched an ambitious fundraising and improvement campaign just over 10 years ago.

Despite more than two decades of expeditions, underwater archaeologists had recovered little more than a hundred small artifacts from the wreck of the USS Monitor, the famous Civil War ironclad that lay at the bottom of the Atlantic off stormy Cape Hatteras, N.C. The one large object they had retrieved – a 1,500-pound anchor – still left plenty of room for the museum to fulfill its role as the primary caretaker of artifacts associated with the pioneering vessel.

But with the rescue of the ship’s propeller in 1998 – followed by the recovery of the massive steam engine and still larger gun turret within four years – a responsibility that had long weighed less than 2,000 pounds suddenly exploded into some 150 tons of priceless Civil War iron. That dramatic leap in scale not only pumped up the museum’s long-term plans in ways nobody had foreseen but also sparked a remarkable transformation.

Now nearing completion, the USS Monitor Center represents one of the largest parts of an enormous building campaign in which Peninsula museums have added more than 150,000 square feet and nearly $80 million in improvements over the past year because of the Jamestown 2007 celebration. But when it opens March 9, the 63,500-square-foot, $30 million exhibit hall and conservation lab also will herald a striking change in the character of one of the nation’s leading maritime museums.

“We’re not just trying to make the Monitor Center, we’re trying to change the face of The Mariners’ Museum,” Monitor Center curator Anna Holloway says. “We want to increase our visibility. We want to raise our profile. We want to change not only the way that we’re perceived but also how we do things and who our visitors are.”

Tacked onto the list of improvements targeted by the 1996 capital campaign, the Monitor Center began in late 1998 with a $500,0000 study designed to sketch out what would be needed to conserve and display the mounting stream of artifacts from the wreck. Within 18 months, that exploratory glimpse had grown into a bold plan for a large-scale exhibit hall as well as a state-of-the-art conservation lab whose work could be observed by the public.

The award-winning architectural design that resulted envisioned a sprawling two-level structure in which visitors would be able to walk in, around, on top of and under a full-scale replica of the Monitor. But when potential general contractors began to respond to the plan, the cost of the heroic engineering measures needed to make it work with the unforgiving Tidewater soil was colossal.

“It was a very wrenching fork in the road. We just couldn’t afford it,” recalls David Dwyer, Mariners’ vice president and executive manager of the project. “Because of the water table, the underground gallery – which we dubbed the ‘bathtub’ – would have popped back out of the ground without really robust support. That drove the cost to the point where the first 25 to 30 percent of the building was taking up about half the budget – and we just had to get more bang for our buck.”

Other problems confronted the planners, too, including the difficulty of creating a structure that not only incorporated two distinct functions – an exhibit hall and a conservation lab – but also embraced the complicated storyline behind the historic Monitor of the Civil War and its dramatic recovery nearly 140 years later.

Both topics had scored extremely well with test audiences, Holloway says. But putting them together in a single space proved to be a challenge.

“We have a story that takes place partly in the mid-1800s – and partly today. We have artifacts that are in the process of being conserved – but they may not be ready for years. We have artifacts that may never be recovered – but we have to have places for them in case they are,” Holloway says.

“Put the whole thing together and you have so many parts that it seems almost impossible to get your hands on it all. We actually had some design firms withdraw their proposals because it was just too hard.”

Many of these problems were ironed out through “Ironclad Evidence,” a 2004 exhibit that Holloway describes as a “dress rehearsal.” Equally important was the proving ground that the show provided for the museum’s sometimes heated relationship with the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the Newport News-based federal agency charged with protecting the wreck and overseeing the artifact recovery and conservation efforts.

Few people know as much about the famous ship as sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston, who Holloway now describes as her co-curator. But past differences between the two institutions have often been wide and deep, ranging from disagreements over the care of the artifacts to turf disputes between the sanctuary’s superiors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the museum’s board of trustees.

“The whole purpose of ‘Ironclad Evidence’ was to figure out how to work together – and that meant working together at every level,” Holloway says. “We had to learn to speak each other’s institutional language. But once we got over that, we really worked together very well.”

Proof of that partnership can be found not only in NOAA’s leading financial contribution to the project – an estimated $10 million so far – but also in the close attention that Holloway and Johnston have learned to pay to each other’s interests. Working with New York-based exhibit design firm DMCD, they’ve striven to hammer out an experience that transcends both the Monitor and the Civil War by emphasizing the human stories associated with the ship. They’ve also insisted on moving far beyond the traditional exhibit paradigms associated with history museums.

“We’ve got great stuff – really great artifacts – and really great stories to tell. But when you move through most of our galleries, it’s just a cabinet of curiosities unless you have one of our fabulous docents there to make it come alive for you,” Holloway says.

“We can’t have docents in every spot all the time. So we had to find new ways to take the stuff we have and make it more interesting and relevant.”

One strategy came from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, from which Holloway and Johnston borrowed the meandering but carefully calculated floor plan that has helped make the attraction one of the most popular on the East Coast. Marked by dramatic twists and turns that often lead to unexpected theatrical vistas, it animates the visitors’ experience in ways rarely found in history museums.

“We want people to say ‘Whoa!’ when they see what great stuff we have,” Holloway says, “and that’s what all these twists and turns are about.”

Computer technology plays an important role, too, especially as a means of engaging visitors and immersing them in the rich array of objects found in both the Mariners’ and the Monitor collections. In one attraction called “100 Days to Build a Warship,” visitors can interact with a computer screen that moves along a wall-sized timeline, accessing reams of audio, video and animated footage in addition to photographs, documents and artifacts explaining how the Monitor was constructed.

“NOAA’s collection is huge. The museum’s collection is huge. So how do we show people all this stuff?” Johnston asks. “The answer lies in technology like the I-Wall, where they can immerse themselves in all sorts of things if they want to – and where, suddenly, as you’re going through all this information, something like the receipt for the Monitor‘s paint job can become a really cool document.”

Similar kinds of technology power the exhibit’s personal story stations, enabling visitors to understand the people and issues surrounding the Monitor in a vivid and unexpectedly comprehensive manner. Other computer stations use challenging interactive games to explore such otherwise obtuse topics as designing an ironclad and maneuvering a wooden warship.

More digital magic waits in the museum’s new Battle Theater, where visitors will come as close to experiencing the historic clash between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia as current exhibit technology can make it, Johnston says.

“The great thing about the Monitor Center is that it allows you to experience the traditional and the new side by side – and the mix between the two works really well,” he explains.

“People will be able to see cool artifacts in cases – and we’ll have plenty of those. But they’ll also be able to push buttons and do things with these cool interactives.”

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…and they are every bit as wonderful as you might imagine.

She told stories.

He did a brief performance of Mark Twain at the dinner table that had everyone in tears.

We talked about sailing and history, Pocohontas and Monitor.

It was a magical evening.

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So I got a phone call from our CEO today.

He asked – “Would you and Jim care to join Deep Throat and Julia Sugarbaker for dinner tomorrow night?”

Of course – he didn’t actually say “Deep Throat” or “Julia Sugarbaker” – but y’all should be able to figure out who we’re dining with tomorrow evening….

eek!

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So here I am a couple of days on the other side of the christening. Almost 2000 people came out to wish us well and the press coverage was incredible. We even made it onto the Weather Channel – though Jim Cantore was not on hand. Oh well – maybe next time!

Recovering now – I think I ran on borrowed steam (my engine fired with diet Coke and Stella Artois rather than anthracite and salt water…)and have now succumbed to the plague that has swept Ye Olde Boat Museum for the past few weeks.

But I thought I’d at least post this photo for all to see.

Man this is such a cool job….

Oh – and I’ve joined the Flickr phenomenon – there’s a link to the left that will take you to more pictures.

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It’s been a blur.

We’ve been gearing up for the christening of the Monitor replica for months, now. Long meetings. Logistics that would make anyone see double. And site preparations that are moving at a frenzied pace.

But tomorrow – we shall christen her. And for two brief hours – anyone who wants to can go on board. It will be the last time we’ll have her open to the public til we open the doors on March 9, 2007 (though if any of you are in the area before that – just let me know….because then you won’t be ‘the public.’ You’ll be my VIP guest….)

Last night we had a wonderful gathering at Tom’s house where he celebrated the achievements of the folks who actually created the replica. It was a wonderful party and not a few tears were shed – though I’m quite sure for some of the men there it was merely something in their eye…

Today I took Fran and George and Janice (and I’m so thrilled they all could make it!!!) on a behind the scenes tour. It was fun seeing them all. I’ll see Bill and Len and maybe some other dear friends tomorrow. We watched our ship sponsor Nancy practice breaking the bottle – she’s so perfect for this. So beautiful, gentle, funny and kind. Just the kind of person whose spirit should imbue the replica.

Tonight we had the big fundraiser at our CEO’s house. I got to meet our guest of honor – Clive Cussler – who graciously signed a book for me (he said ‘Can I get you in trouble?’ to which I replied – ‘Sure! go for it!’ So he signed the book – ‘To Anna – We’ll always have Tahiti – Clive Cussler’). I also got to see some of my favourite people – like Cheryl and John from NOAA. A wonderful evening on the banks of the James.

Tomorrow is the big event. It will be non-stop for hours. I should probably stop now….

eek!

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So – if this was the real blog, I'd probably have talked about the battle at Drewry's Bluff which took place on May 15, 1862. The Monitor didn't do so well that day. Not that she didn't want to – she just couldn't elevate her guns……

More »

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The spaces between entries are getting too long to suit me….

But it’s once again been non-stop – which I guess I should be used to by now.

But a quick update – this past week I was sworn in as an advisory member of everybody’s favourite National Marine Sanctuary – which was really cool and a true honour. All of us newly sworn advisors got to celebrate with a cruise on a schooner on the Elizabeth River. Luckily – we came back to port just before the worst rain storm I’ve ever been in this side of a hurricane hit. But all was well.

That was followed by our annual curatorial competition on Friday night – which Lester and I won without resorting to curatorial guerilla tactics (usually stickers saying ‘de-accession me’ strategically stuck to one’s back or bum when one isn’t looking). We presented a group of letters from a Monitor crewman – which the museum now owns – yay!

Saturday I drove to see Dublingirl and family for Miss Clare’s first communion! She was an absolute beauty in her white gown and veil. We went back to the house for a big barbecue party and then hung out with friends until it was late. Clare and I had a slumber party in the living room and then Officer Harmon woke us up with the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted! Drove back in time for mother’s day in Williamsburg and a few hours sleep before the big Board of Trustees retreat. Whew!

In the midst of it all I discovered SecondLife, though I must admit I’ve spent most of my time running away from men in skimpy underwear and sitting by myself in cathedrals full of little wooden boxes.

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