Mariners’ Museum offers a voyage of discovery for every visitor


In a small studio at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA, education specialist Wisteria Perry asked a group of fifth graders what it means to go exploring.

A girl in Minnesota, whose class is connected to the museum via videoconference, answered, "Someone who goes to different lands looking for something."

Perry explored this theme during a half-hour class focused on the "Age of Exploration," one of the many museum classes offered onsite and by video link.

Perry guided the discussion using artifacts and images from the museum's collections and exhibits, showing how European royalty's drive for power and wealth led to the discovery of sea routes that ultimately brought distant lands much closer.

Not all of the museum's visitors are so focused, nor need they be. Because of the depth of its collection and the breadth of its partnerships, the museum has ways for each visitor to embark on a personal voyage of discovery, such as walking amongst cannons below deck on an 18th century man-of-war or sitting at the navigator's station in a modern submarine.

In 1930, Archer Milton Huntington founded The Mariners' Museum with wealth inherited from his father, Colin Huntington, who founded the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company and the Central Pacific Railroad.

He purchased 800 acres up the James River from the shipyard and set about creating what is now designated as America's National Maritime Museum, as well as a Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network site.

"The Mariners' Museum began with Huntington's desire to be bring the world back to the local community. So it has always had an international scope as well as a local focus," said Lyles Forbes, chief curator for the museum.

Today, 90,000 square feet of exhibition galleries house six permanent exhibits, including the creations of pre-eminent model makers August and Winifred Crabtree; short-term exhibits; the International Boat collection; and the USS Monitor exhibit and conservation facility.

While The Mariners' Museum has everything one might expect from a museum — paintings, objects, dioramas, rare books, maps and artifacts — it also offers multi-sensory exhibits that encourage full-immersion learning.

In the Chesapeake Bay exhibit, visitors descend into a waterway of iconic images and objects of the Bay and its threatened species — oysters, crabs and the watermen whose livelihoods depend upon these catches.

Visitors can use a hand-held "sound stick," to listen to Capt. Pete Freeman, Sr., a third-generation commercial fisherman, describe what life is like trying to earn a living on the water now.

At an oyster-shucking station, visitors can hold the tools of the trade. On the wall is a 10-foot punt gun, used for the market gunning of waterfowl, an illegal but formerly widespread method of hunting these birds from craft called sneak boxes.

A recreated boat building shed reminds people that there is "nothing dead about a deadrise," the traditional Chesapeake craft built all over the Bay.

Further on, visitors are guided to an interior space that surrounds them with the sights and sounds of maritime adventure…and disaster.

The Abandon Ship exhibit invites visitors to experience a vessel sinking in the midst of a vast ocean. Board a replica lifeboat and contemplate, "If you are in a wooden boat and have only six hours before it will sink, what would you do?"

Both young and older visitors can crawl inside a modern inflatable life raft like the one Steve Callahan made his floating home for 76 days after his sailboat sank in the mid-Atlantic in 1981.

Famous and less well-known stories of survival and rescue are told through multi-media accounts that provide an uncomfortable experience of the unimaginable.

Across an open courtyard, an elevated walkway through the International Small Craft Center provides a close-up look of 70 craft from more than 36 countries, including a dugout canoe from the Congo, a Peruvian reed boat and the oldest known full-size birch bark canoe.

Herreshoff's famous 12- 1/2 foot sailboat sits next to an impossibly small 2-person boat used to escape across the Straits of Florida from Cuba to the United States in 1966. A real boat in the "All Hands!" area allows children and adults to play together.

The Monitor Center, opened in 2007, exemplifies how the museum encourages social interaction. Sound cones directed from above let groups of people listen together to the stories embodied by the artifacts and images.

A small surround-sound theater provides a front row seat to the historic battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads, perhaps as those on shore saw it in March 1862. Viewers sit in small swivel chairs like those found on more modern naval ships.

In a small space with low ceilings, a full-scale replica and exhibit shows how the USS Merrimack was rebuilt as the CSS Virginia under the Confederate flag. The transition from wooden to ironclad vessels ushered in a new era of naval warfare.

The Monitor later sank in a storm as it rounded Cape Hatteras on Dec. 31, 1862, taking 16 Union soldiers to the bottom in what is known today as "the Graveyard of the Atlantic."

When the wreck was located in 1973, the site was designated a National Marine Sanctuary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration subsequently selected The Mariners' Museum to be the repository of all objects recovered from the site.

Each recovered artifact, including the ship's revolutionary turret, is carefully documented before the hard work of disassembly and restoration commences.

Sam Waterson narrates a compelling film of the U.S. Navy expedition to raise the gun turret in 2002 during a marine salvage operation complicated by strong currents, shifting sands and the desire to keep fragile structures intact.

Tina Gutshall directs the work of the museum's Batten Conservation Laboratory Complex and describes the experience of working through the debris and muck that filled the turret structure when it first arrived at the museum.

"We discovered the remains of two soldiers who died in the turret, possibly trying to escape. I realized that I was holding in my hands the kneecap of someone who died on the ship," Gutshall said.

"I already knew the importance of this conservation work, but I suddenly realized how important it was to tell the story of this man and the others who died with him."

Today, visitors can watch the modern conservation work from large picture windows overlooking the tanks and tables where trained conservators undertake the necessary work of "getting the salt out" of objects that have lived for 140 years at the bottom of the ocean.

Gigantic tanks, where the process of electrolytic reduction draws chlorides from the artifacts and stabilizes the metal, hold the Monitor's two Dahlgren cannons, the revolving gun turret, steam engine and condenser. Remote cameras provide visitors a closer look.

The Mariners' Museum is part of the fabric of life in a community flanked by river and the Bay that has always been connected to the sea.

A five-mile trail around Lake Maury in the middle of The Mariners' Museum Park is a secluded but popular route for runners and walkers. Outdoor spaces include wooden boat structures for children to scramble over, under and through. Picnics, family reunions and weddings often take place here.

On the lower peninsula of Virginia, in a part of Virginia where attractions compete for tourist attention, one might be tempted to overlook this Chesapeake Bay Gateway site on the James River.

But while many attractions claim to have something for everyone in the whole family, The Mariners' Museum delivers on this promise.

Article originally published in the Bay Journal on December 1, 2012.

Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

January 30, 2018

Main image: The Noland Trail around Lake Maury has 14 wooden footbridges for wildlife watching. (Image courtesy: Dave Harp)
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