Saturday, April 15, 2006


From Warrior to Icon


Portfolio Weekly
By David Chernicky
April 11, 2006

The new USS Monitor Center promises to become one of the nation’s premier destinations for history buffs

"In her previous life, she was a warrior," proclaims a Mariner’s Museum ad. "Now she’s an icon." A second poster reads, "Umbrella drinks and shuffleboard on the lido deck? Hardly."

The catchy phrases are part of the museum’s new national marketing campaign for the USS Monitor Center, a $30 million project scheduled for opening March 9, 2007 — one hundred forty five years after the Civil War ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia battled each other in Hampton Roads.

The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News offered a preview of its promotional lineup at a March 28 news conference to launch the public campaign to raise the $30 million. A hard-hat tour of the 63,500-square foot USS Monitor Center followed.

The Mariners Museum has a new logo to accompany the new ads, which will start appearing later this month on billboards and in print media and airing on radio spots across Hampton Roads and nationally in Civil War-oriented magazines, said Justin Lyons, marketing and public relations director.

The museum has contracted singer Tony Bennett, singer/actress Dixie Carter and actor Hal Holbrook for a series of commercials promoting the new center.

Laura Bateman, wife of the late 1st District Congressman Herbert Bateman, is heading the fundraising effort.

So far, the museum has raised $25.7 million of the $30 million, Alan D. Diamonstein, chairman of The Mariners’ Museum Board of Trustees, reported. Construction is 87 percent complete.
While public interest in the project has been impressive, Diamonstein said, "The most challenging dollars are those that are still to be raised." The campaign will solicit support locally and nationally, from individuals and corporations.

In 1987, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated The Mariners’ Museum as the repository for all artifacts and archives from the USS Monitor. Since then, the museum has received over 1,200 artifacts, including the steam engine, propeller and revolving gun turret.

In addition to boosting tourism in the region, the USS Monitor Center will become an educational tool for children.

"It’s good for our children; good for us and good for the community," Newport News Mayor Joe Frank said. "It will be a facility that has huge appeal. Not just to Civil War buffs but naval architects, engineers, people interested in shipbuilding and the history of the navy," Frank said. He noted the Navy never built another wooden ship after the Battle of the Ironclads.

One feature of the USS Monitor Center that is sure to attract young people is the interactive computer games and web cams.

On the day of the tour, reporters walked on concrete floors down rounded corridors to unfinished galleries, each with a different theme.

Curator Anna Holloway, who led the tour, said the first gallery describes life for a sailor on the USS Monitor. The date is Nov. 31, 1862, and the USS Monitor is in peril, Holloway said.

A red signal lantern flashes a warning.

In the next gallery, the year is 1973. The project to locate and recover the sunken ironclad had just begun.

The third gallery returns to 1862. A large interactive map shows those states that remained Union and the ones that had formed the Confederacy.

The gallery will have a theater where visitors can watch a 13-minute documentary about the Civil War, narrated by historian John Quarstein, curator of the War Memorial Museum in Newport News.

This is the gallery where people not only can witness the battle of Hampton Roads, but also hear the cannons explode.

A series of speakers, called "subwoofers’" will simulate exploding gunpowder and the sound of cannon balls hitting the sides of the ironclads.

The tour moved outdoors to the deck of a full-size replica of the USS Monitor.

Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding donated the materials and labor for the construction through its Apprentice School.

Holloway said the turret guns, when added, will point in the same direction and angle as depicted in original drawings and photographs.

A christening of the replica is set for June 11. Already, Holloway said several citizens and groups have reserved the steel deck for parties and receptions. "You can get married on it if you want to," she added.

The tour moved across the grounds in front of the replica, an area that will become the courtyard for the USS Monitor.

The next stop was the conservation lab, a large prefabricated building with a high ceiling and overhead cranes. This is the temporary home of the largest artifact –the original USS Monitor turret.

On this day, the turret set upside down in a damp tank. Assistant conservationist Marcie Renner pointed to two smaller tanks, one that houses the ironclad’s steam engine and the second holds the condenser.
Conservation work to remove the thick coating of shell, coral sand and other material from the turret could take 15 to 20 years, Renner said. Until the meticulous clean up is completed and the artifact moved to the adjacent building for permanent display, visitors will be able to see the crusty turret as it is being worked on.

"It’s delicate, dirty work," David Crop, an assistant conservator at the museum, paused to say. He wears a rubber suit and protective glasses. Specks of mud covered Crop’s face.

Crop, who is from Virginia Beach, loves the job. "Everyday I’m looking at this 144-year-old artifact, identifying things that nobody has ever seen." He has a bachelor’s degree in history from James Madison University and is pursuing a master’s degree in underwater archeology from East Carolina University.

One of the early artifacts found in the turret were human bones. "A rumor persisted for 144 years that that one of the sailors had a cat with him the night the Monitor went down," Crop said.

"There was no cat. We found a couple fish bones, but no cat or animal bones."

The work isn’t as easy. "This is the only one," said Jeff Johnston, a historian with NOAA. "There are no manuals or instructions to tell us how to take this apart. We are learning a lot about the turret as we go."

Johnston’s fondest memories were from 1995 when he directed the divers to the sunken ironclad and supervised the recovery.

"The thrill is not gone," he said.


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