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Interpretive Center Opens March 9th At The Mariners' Museum

Scott C. Boyd

(Feb/Mar 2007) NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - "Like lots of good stories we decided to start in the middle. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the Atlantic, Dec 31, 1862," Anna Holloway explained at a recent media preview of the USS Monitor Center.

Holloway is chief curator for the Mariners' Museum in Newport News where the new Center will open on March 9, the 145th anniversary of the Monitor's battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia.

The Mariners' Museum has been the official repository for Monitor artifacts since 1987. The Monitor Center has been in the works since 1999, according to Holloway. This was shortly after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) had published a plan for recovering certain artifacts from the wreck.

A 2004 groundbreaking ceremony initiated construction of the 63,500-square-foot USS Monitor Center, which is entered from the Mariners' Museum lobby. On schedule for opening, $27 million of the $30 million required has been raised to date.

The USS Monitor sank on Dec. 31, 1862, and the Center's first room focuses on the loss. Dark lighting and projected images rock back and forth to make visitors feel like they are on the doomed ironclad that night. "You're going to feel like you're in the middle of the storm," Holloway said.

It was a little too realistic during one early run-through. "We actually did have some people on the floor of the theater vomiting. We slowed it down today," Holloway told us, to many reporters' great relief.

"After the sinking occurs, we take you into the modern world where we recover this wreck," Holloway said. Between rooms, visitors walk over a detailed scale model of the Monitor wreckage in a glass-covered case in the floor, showing the warship's appearance on the bottom of the sea off Cape Hatteras.

The next room shows some of the naval technology preceding the ironclad era. Many are surprised by the model there of a 1592 Korean "turtle boat" ironclad. "We wanted to do that to throw people a little off-kilter," said Holloway, who noted that many people think the Monitor and Virginia were the first ironclads.

The naval technology on display takes a big leap from 1592 to 1812 in the next area as visitors enter the recreated gun deck of the wooden sailing frigate USS United States. The technological changes between sail and steam, solid shot and exploding shells, and the change from wood to iron construction are shown.

"We'll do that through models, through video screens and also give you the feel for the wooden deck of a sailing frigate," said Holloway.

As visitors leave the gun deck of the USS United States, they find themselves outdoors on the dock in Norfolk's Gosport Navy Yard where the old wooden sailing ship is moored. The year is 1862, and the aging frigate is no longer an active warship but is the receiving ship for new recruits.

On the other side of the dock is a strange, menacing vessel with black, sloping sides, a smokestack and no masts. It is no less than the co-star of the Battle of Hampton Roads: the CSS Virginia. Workmen on ladders are installing more iron plates on the warship converted from the former wooden steam frigate USS Merrimack, recovered by Confederates after Union forces fled Norfolk.

The Monitor Center will display about 50 feet of a full-scale replica of the Virginia's casemate. "One of the things that's very difficult to do if you've ever built a model is to try to glean enough information to make it accurate," Holloway commented.

The museum didn't have quite enough information, "so a lot of judgment calls were made and a lot of arguments [developed] over how we build this thing."

Among those debating the details were historian Jeff Johnston from NOAA and John Quarstein, a local historian and consultant at the museum.

"They were arguing over how we were going to show the [gun]port shutters on the Virginia. And they argued for a long time and finally got sick of it, and said 'Let's show workmen installing them, that way we don't have to show how they were working,'" Holloway said.

Everyone agreed and figures of workmen were cast, using two men used to arguing with each other as models: Johnston and Quarstein. This is an inside joke at the museum.

Two other men - this time from the past - who butted heads over details about the Confederate ironclad will be represented. "You're going to meet John Brooke and John Porter, and they may be arguing over who actually designed the Virginia," Holloway said.

Actors portraying Porter and Brooke will be seen in a video on something called a Personal Story Station, 42-inch plasma screens turned on their side. "This is a way of making history come to life in a way that may really intrigue the MTV generation," said Holloway.

Monitor Center chief historian Craig Symonds pointed out the symbolism of the two very different ships tied up at the Gosport display.

He noted the open gunports and carronades peering out from the old wooden ship, on the one side, and the iron ship on the other side. "We get the dramatic contrast, which is fascinating," he said.

Conference Room

The next locale transports visitors to a conference room in Washington, D.C., circa 1861. "In this area we talk about the Ironclad Board of the U.S. Navy," Holloway explained.

The conference table is designed for an interactive game called Design-An-Ironclad. Players get to decide such questions as: What kind of hull do you want? What is your motive power? Do you want sails, do you want paddlewheels? How many guns do you want? How many turrets do you want? If you're putting a turret on, you can put up to three.

Once decisions are made "Amazingly the hull falls out of the sky into the water and then whatever armament and stuff you put on it falls out of the sky and lands on the hull and then it sits there and more often than not sinks," said Holloway.

Meanwhile the Ironclad Board members sit there blinking at the visitor. If the ship floats, they give a thumbs-up. "If they hate it, they give you a thumbs-down, and make some snide comment about how they're the Ironclad Board not the Submarine Board," said Holloway. "It's very Monty Python-esque, but it actually teaches a lot about buoyancy and other factors."

Battle Theater

gee The next stop is arguably the best of the tour - the Battle Theater. It is an oval-shaped room with 45 swivel seats surrounded inside by large screens. Once the automatic theater doors swing shut and the lights go out, visitors are immersed in the sights and sounds of both days of the battle.

Beautiful maps and digital paintings of the ships are projected onto the oval wall as the battle progresses. There is something to watch wherever the viewer turns. The sound track is loud and booming.

Viewers experience the CSS Virginia rampaging through the wooden Union vessels on the first day and the thunderous clash of the ironclads the next day. The shouted commands and exclamations of the fighting men take the viewer back to March 8-9, 1862.

The 13-minute, 10-second audio-visual presentation is narrated by Salome Jens, "who has one of the most beautiful voices on the planet," said Holloway. "She's best known nowadays as the shape-shifter in ’Ạ̈Star Trek Voyager,'" Holloway noted. (Some of us remember Jens as seductress Mae Olinski on the late 1970s TV show "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.")

Many of the observers present were speechless after the presentation ended - it was that good.

Pyramid Studios in Richmond, Va., made the film. Digital artist Andy Simmons created about 70 original digital paintings for the film.

"These were all done actually by hand on the computer, so it's pretty amazing and everything in here is an original work of art," said Holloway.

Living Quarters

The next destination is the living quarters of the USS Monitor. The officers' quarters have been recreated. "This is particularly important for kids because you want them to be able to place themselves in context, and nothing's better than putting them into a physical space," Holloway said.

Several cabins for the officers can be seen, some with life-size cast occupants. The enlisted men had hammocks and officers had individual bunks like those shown.

The Monitor was the first American warship to have all of the living quarters and most of the ship's workspace below the waterline. There are glass-covered holes in the deck above. These deadlights provided some natural lighting.

"You'll get the sense of it being water washing over your head," Symonds noted.

The ceiling heights in the frigate United States and the Monitor mock-ups are unhistorically high, a concession to the greater average stature of people today and the museum's need for maximum accessibility for visitors.


A map of the Peninsula Campaign dominates the next tour stop. It will include images about the Monitor's participation in the unsuccessful attack on the Confederacy's Fort Darling on Drewry's Bluff, Richmond's gatekeeper on the James River.

The wheel of the CSS Virginia, which was given to the museum by Tredegar Ironworks in the 1950s, will be in a display case in front of the huge wall map.

Holloway said that some of the souvenirs that came from the two ironclads and other ships involved in the Battle of Hampton Roads were turned into walking canes. Some of these canes will be displayed.

"The theory is if you took all the wood from any of those ships and put them [the canes] together you'd have three times the ship's length," Holloway said, to roars of laughter.

A great shift in perspective occurs next as visitors leave the historical, 19th-century area, and move into the modern part. Holloway pointed out that the Monitor Center doesn't have a permanent exhibit in that area telling the story of the entire ironclad building program of both sides.

Instead a changing gallery will give in-depth shows on a rotating basis, which will sometimes include material on the bigger picture of the naval war between North and South. This explains one of the few apparent gaps in the museum's presentation, namely coverage of the Civil War's overall naval story.

The first part of the modern Monitor story is a stunning recreation of the Monitor's turret as recovered in 2002. Anyone who visited the conservation tank behind the museum when it held the turret after recovery, and saw any part of the turret exposed, knows its orange-brownish color and how much "crud" was concreted all over it. That is precisely what you see here.

"It's exactly the same. Even our conservators, when they first saw this, it scared them - they were taken aback," said Justin Lyons, museum public relations director.

A huge ring in the floor waits for the actual turret when it has completed the conservation process. Visitors will then be able to see the turret from the level below. On that lower floor, the engine and condenser (after conservation) will occupy the correct position on the virtual ship in relation to the turret above.

Turret Recovery

Nearby is the Turret Recovery Theater where visitors will face the same challenges that NOAA and the Navy confronted to recover the Monitor's turret from its watery grave off Cape Hatteras.

The video about the turret recovery runs about 15 minutes. It will pause at several crucial points to present several options to the audience in this interactive experience.

Holloway elaborated: "For example, do we make one cut or two cuts in the armor belt? When do we deploy the spider [the gigantic recovery claw that gripped the turret underwater]? If we deploy it now are we going to kill the turret? When will we make the lift?"

The seats all have electronic voting devices in the armrest. Audience members will vote on what they think the decision should be. "And then you find out if you made the right decision," Holloway explained.

In a video clip, NOAA and Navy experts will tell the audience the consequences of the decision they just made. "It's going to be a lot of fun and no two presentations are the same," she said. "It's full of warmth and humor and it'll definitely bring a tear to your eyes, too."


The next part of the tour features modern conservation techniques at work. Because some of the large artifacts will go through the conservation process for a long time the conservation lab is part of the tour, according to head conservator Marcie Renner.

Visitors will see the huge building where the Monitor's large artifacts, including the turret, both XI-inch guns and the engine, are undergoing conservation. Using catwalks, they can peer down into the tanks where the artifacts are being treated.

Back in the gallery where the Monitor's turret will eventually be displayed, a waterline silhouette of the CSS Virginia is visible to the south in a courtyard through the glass windows on one side. Through the room's massive windows on the other side to the north, the full-scale Monitor replica (christened June 11, 2006) sits outside.

Including the Virginia in the story of the Monitor is very important, Lyons explained. "I don't know that you can make the argument that if it weren't for the Virginia there wouldn't be the Monitor, but that certainly was the purpose behind creating the Monitor so quickly," he said.

The curatorial team, the museum as a whole and NOAA quickly agreed that this could not just be an exhibition focused only on the Monitor. "You had to tell the whole story ¬- you had to put it in perspective," he said. One of the last images visitors will see as they leave the Monitor Center is a huge picture of a World War II-era American battleship firing mighty 16-inch guns in its armored turrets.

Lyons put it this way: "The idea is just to show how warships today have used the technology of the turret - the revolving gun turret. It's just a way to get that point across that the Monitor just revolutionized in many ways the ways that warships were built and [have] fought since."

The Center's opening will begin on March 8 with a donor gala for USS Monitor Center Capital Campaign contributors of $2,500 or more.

The ribbon cutting, open to the public, will be at 10 a.m. on March 9. Underwater explorer Bob Ballard will speak via satellite from NOAA's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve in Lake Huron's "Shipwreck Alley."

USS Monitor Center Chief Historian Craig Symonds will deliver the keynote lecture that evening to inaugurate the 5th Annual Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend. Nationally known speakers who will speak about Civil War naval topics on Saturday and Sunday, include Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and South Carolina State Senator Glenn McConnell, chairman of the H.L. Hunley Commission. The public is invited to see fireworks Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Call (800)581-7245 or see for further information.

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