The Monitor Makes Port

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Since then the new museum-within-the-museum, situated in a bucolic 550-acre park setting, has risen alongside the venerable Mariners’ building under design plans crafted by both Virginia and New York–based firms. As the curator Anna Holloway proudly points out, the resulting facility is designed to transport visitors through the entire experience of the Battle of Hampton Roads, from both Union and Confederate perspectives. (The institution made certain it could reflect the “other” side of the Monitor story when it purchased the original John Luke Porter design drawings for the transformation of the hulk of the U.S. steam frigate Merrimack —burned to the water line when the U.S. Navy ignominiously abandoned its Norfolk base at the outbreak of the war—into the armor-plated vessel that went on to guard the river passage to Richmond.

Visitors will also enjoy access to the museum’s unparalleled archive of personal accounts, paintings, photographs, sculptures, prints, period documents, and blueprints, all neatly enhanced through modern interactive displays designed to keep children and families fully engaged.

The steel replica of the ship built by Northrop Grumman.
 
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The museum’s multifaceted “environments” include a “battle theater” in the round, where visitors, placed in the middle of the action, are introduced to the ironclad duel through a 13-minute film, conceived as an homage to nineteenth-century Civil War cycloramas (a once popular Monitor-Merrimack cyclorama vanished generations ago). Nearby, visitors will explore the sailors’ claustrophobic living quarters in re-created cabins. And just around a turn stands a mock stone dock connecting a sailing frigate to a full-scale re-creation of the forward portions of the CSS Virginia .

Much of the conservation facility with its oversized tanks will be fully open to the public, while behind the scenes a two-story 7,000-square-foot laboratory will serve as a unique training ground for professionals and university scholars. Education programs will be geared to both schoolchildren and future interns in museum studies and underwater archeology. The museum’s already richly loaded Web site ( www.monitorcenter.org ) will offer an immense stockpile of historical narratives, pictures, archives, and teacher resources both to help travelers plan visits and to aid researchers in their scholarly inquiries. The Mariners’ Museum’s formidable library already holds a million manuscripts, 78,000 books, and 600,000 photographs (not to mention maps, ships’ plans, and charts), among them a trove of letters the Monitor crew member William Keeler wrote his wife, which provide a wonderfully revealing account of life on board the ship. “I’m tired of everlasting iron,” he wrote home one day. “The clank, clank, clank while I’m writing this of the officer of the deck as he paces back and forth on the iron plates above my head, although suggestive of security, is not a good opiate.”

In the new museum, it is the original relics from the Monitor that will likely attract the most attention — and rightly so.

The original Monitor relics will likely attract the most attention—and rightly so. On public view for the first time is the vessel’s brass engine register (for the record, number 749088); its inexplicably unbroken, fully intact, and still working brass, copper, and glass engine-room thermometer (marked for “blood heat,” “fever heat,” and “water boils,” an arresting reminder of what its sailors had to endure during the ship’s first and only summer at sea); the nine-foot-wide cast-iron propeller; and the surviving metal-and-glass lanterns and wall sconces that once provided flickering illumination to the crew of a vessel that spent its life half-submerged and would otherwise have been cast into near darkness whenever water surged over its skylights. Pride of place among these relics may well belong to the red lantern whose light flickered and then died that night off Cape Hatteras.

Here, too, are mementos suggesting that the officers of the Monitor lived rather splendidly: engraved forks, spoons, and knives, intact wine bottles, shards of fine china. They help explain why Nathaniel Hawthorne, much as he regretted the decline of romance in naval warfare, wrote after a visit belowdecks: “It was like finding a palace with all its conveniences under the sea.” But here too will be reminders of the constant threats that faced the crew of the untested vessel, like the crude but workmanlike tools that were once kept handy for emergency onboard repairs, although when the fatal emergency of December 31 confronted her, no tools could help.