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


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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