Virginia Museums – The Mariners Museum and Monitor Center in Newport News, VA
I’m going to take you on a brief tour of the Mariners’ Museum, starting with actually getting to the place, and then through all the galleries, and ending with the Library – which contains the largest collection of maritime books and records in the United States, and is ideal for the maritime researcher.
How Much Time Will You Need?
If at all possible, plan to spend the whole day at the museum – there is that much to see, from the Mariners’ Museum to the brand new Monitor Center.
Family members who get bored or need a break can eat a sandwich or dessert in the Compass Café (but not on Sundays or Mondays, and not after 2.30 pm, mark you!), rent a paddle boat and go for a paddle on Lake Maury, or go out for a walk on the Noland nature trail which winds around the lake. They could also browse in the large store, visit the Library, or play on a few wooden ships in the rear grounds of the museum. And if that’s not enough, just about 20 yards away is the Peninsula Fine Arts Museum, for those of a less nautical and more artistic bent. (Although there is much of the artistic in the Mariners’ Museum yourself, as you will see.)
The Mariners’ Museum is located off the intersection between J. Clyde Morris Blvd and Warwick Blvd. (See Directions at the end of this article.) For the purpose of this article, I shall assume that you’ll approach the Museum by driving (or biking) south along J. Clyde Morris (which starts out in York County as George Washington Memorial Highway, and is also called Highway 17).
When you stop at the intersection between J. Clyde and Warwick Blvd., you will see on your right hand side, on the other side of Warwick, a 30-foot tall statue of Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant which brought the settlers to Jamestown in 1607. This statue marks the entrance to Christopher Newport University.
Three Lanes of Traffic
Going south, J. Clyde Morris has three lanes – the far left lane is to turn left onto Warwick, the far right lane is to turn right onto Warwick. You want to be in the middle lane. When the light turns green, drive straight across Warwick Blvd, and get into the far left lane at this point, because you’ll be turning left onto Museum Drive. (The road itself continues on to the University.)
The sign for the Museum turning will be on your right hand side, on your left hand side you’ll see a statue of Leif Ericson (about half the size of the Newport statue, but still impressive), which used to be inside the Museum.
Unless there’s some function going on, the many parking lots will not be filled up. There’s probably no reason, therefore, to turn into the first parking lot that you’ll see on your right. You’ll want to park here only if you intend to use only the Noland Trail, a nature trail that winds along Lake Maury. This is of use only for walkers, bikes are not allowed. (There are several starting points for the Noland Trail, this is just one of them.)
There is plenty of parking space right by the museum, either on your right hand side as you drive up to it, or behind it. If you’re going to be using the Library, you’ll want to park in this back parking lot.
The back entrance is only for museum people. However, you’ll want to take a walk to this back entrance, to see the bas relief murals flanking the doors. They feature nautical scenes, from a mermaid to a fisherman to the god of the sea.
A couple of ship replicas -made out of wood – pretty much featureless and simply designed for kids to run and jump on – are in the back grounds. The Library is also located just a little further on down the sidewalk. Across the parking lot is the Peninsula Fine Arts Museum.
You’ll walk in through the front entrance. On your left hand side you’ll see a little strip of water on which reside the paddle boats. If you walk down to take a closer look, and look up at the museum itself, you’ll see the life-size replica of the Monitor as it stands outside the Monitor Center.
Walk through the entrance hall, and on your right you’ll see the Compass Café, with its offerings of various kinds of sandwiches, desserts, and drinks. You can eat your food in the Café, or take it outside and dine beside the water (depending on the weather, of course.)
Then you’ll see the Museum Store, which is quite large and has a vast selection of books for adults and children, puzzles and games, figurines, clothing, and so on.
Then you’ll come to the actual entry into the museum. Hopefully, if there’s lots of people trying to get in, there’ll be at least two people working the registers. Prices are subject to change, but at the time of this writing it costs $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children, except for those under five years who are free.
You know your kids best. Will they be interested in the exhibits they’re seeing, just because, or will they need tasks to do and games to play to keep them occupied? If so, you’ll be able to check out a “Seabag” at the front desk, which contains stuff designed to keep your kid interested as you walk around the museum. Heck – you may even find stuff of interest in there yourself!
Docents and Events
There are generally docents standing by here to talk to any visitors who approach them. On the counter you’ll also find a map of the Museum, as well as brochures for other attractions in the area. Make sure you ask the Museum representative if there is anything special going on that day. Usually there are no signs to announce special talks (as for example, at the time of this writing, every Saturday at 1 pm for the next three months a sailor will be standing by in the Officers Wardroom of the Monitor Gallery to give a talk about what life was like on the Monitor during the Civil War. But if you didn’t know he was going to be there….you wouldn’t know he was going to be there, as there are no signs to tell you so!)
A gigantic golden eagle, figurehead of the USS Lancaster, will immediately catch your eye in the foyer. Beside that figurehead is the entrance to the John L. Roper Theater, in which various short films are continuously shown. (Ask at the desk to see what’s on offer that day.)
What To See First
This all depends on how much time you have. The USS Monitor Center has only recently been opened and the main influx of visitors go there. There is so much to see and read that one is quite tired out by the time one finishes, so you might just grab a snack at the Compass Café and then go – thereby missing the rest of the museum, which of course has a lot to offer. What I would suggest is that you spend half a day visiting the Mariners Museum, and the other half visiting the Monitor Center, taking breaks as needed to refresh yourself.
Chesapeake Bay Gallery
I’m going to start this written tour and take you in a clockwise direction. First, turn left and walk through the Chesapeake Bay Gallery. The first thing you’ll see is a first order Fresnel lens, which used to stand in a local lighthouse. Usually the light is going, and provides a nice bit of ambience.
The Chesapeake Bay Gallery takes you, quickly, from Virginia as it was pre-human arrival, to the first Native Americans, to the arrival of the Europeans. Blackbeard and pirates are mentioned briefly. A much larger section is given over to the fishermen of the 30s and 40s and the crabbing industry. Various examples of boats and equipment are on view. Go to the end of the gallery and up the steps and retrace your steps along the Recreational Boating area, with all kinds of photos on the walls depicting life on the water as it was during various long-past time periods.
The Monitor Center
Clockwise after the Chesapeake Bay Gallery is the USS Monitor Center. I’m going to hold this off for last, so you’ll see the topic header much further below in this article.
The Age of Exploration Gallery
Instead of going to the Monitor Center right now, and instead of going into whatever “Changing Exhibition” might be on offer in the gallery straight in front of you, go right, into the Age of Exploration Gallery, so that you can take things chronologically. (It was here that the Leif Ericson statute used to stand.)
This gallery is chock full of ancient navigational tools, models of boats, paintings and statues of various explorers, as well as little TV screens where you can listen to information given on various topics.
The Nelson Touch
Once you’re through with the Age of Exploration Gallery, you’ll enter The Nelson Touch, an exhibit given over to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the romantic hero with one eye and one arm who saved England at the Battle of Trafalgar, only to be struck down by a sniper’s bullet at the moment of his triumph.
Defending the Seas
Once through The Nelson Touch you’ll be in the first of a long series of galleries given over to the naval sea power of the United States, from the War of 1812 to the Civil War (with a replica of the Monitor turret there), to World War II (with alcoves kitted out as briefing rooms and submarine control rooms) to the modern day – consisting of a model of the Trieste, and a single corner, glassed in, displaying a Gemini-era space suit and the overalls worn by Alan Shepard.
But you are not done yet.
Great Hall of Steam
Continue out of the Defending the Seas Gallery and walk to your left, through a room with various seascapes hanging on its walls. (This used to be where the old “Café” was.) On your right will be bathrooms, if needed. You’ll come out into a foyer. To your left is the Great Hall of Steam.
On your right, as you enter the room, is a very small exhibit featuring The Titanic, all that is left of an exhibit from 1998.
Then you’ll walk through a vast selection of miniature ships – which are actually quite large – modern ships from the age of steam, and a working replica, in miniature, of a steam engine. Jutting out from the walls are various intricately carved and painted figureheads.
At the end of this gallery, to your left, is the Crabtree Miniature Ships Gallery. Now, these ships are ancient sailing ships, made all out of wood by one man, August Crabtree. They took him a lifetime to build. There is also an alcove in which a brief documentary of Crabtree and his work is shown.
Most days, between 10 am and 5 pm, with time off for breaks and lunch, you’ll find a ship modelmaker in a little alcove just off the Crabtree Gallery. He works on his ships, and is delighted to stop and talk to anyone who comes by and wants to learn more about the hobby. Brochures are on offer there for the Hampton Roads Model Ship Society, founded in 1967. Their website is http://www.hrsms.org.
Now that you’re done with the Great Hall of Steam, you’ll find yourself in a gallery given over to exhibitions that change periodically. These exhibits can be displays of photos or paintings on a certain topic, to all out displays with artifacts and clothing of various kinds. The most recent exhibitions have been: By the Sea, Captain John Smith Four Hundred Project, Ironclad Evidence, Life’s a Beach, The Monitor Revisited, and Swashbuckler: The Romance of the Pirate.
Walk through that gallery to the end, and you’ll find yourself back in the entrance foyer. Is it time now to go to the Monitor Center?
Well, that depends on your taste, and how much energy you have left.
Boatbuilding and International Small Craft Center
If you like, you can go out of the doors into the fresh air and walk to the International Small Craft Center. On your way, you’ll pass a building given over to boatbuilding – craftsmen building wooden ships the old-fashioned way. Inside the International Small Craft Center is a vast collection of small boats from around the world – and even includes a bathysphere. There is also a research room within – consisting of a couple of computers hooked up to the library archives. Chris Craft enthusiasts can find information here – but more information at the Mariners Museum Library.
Okay, now it’s time to go to the Monitor Center.
The Monitor Center
The Monitor Center, which had its Grand Opening in March, 2007, is home to the artifacts brought up from the USS Monitor, the ironclad that successfully defended Union ships at the Battle of Hampton Roads against the USS Virginia (or Merrimac), but then sank off North Carolina when it was being towed down the coast in December, 1862.
The wreckage of the Monitor was found in 1973, and the site was declared a marine sanctuary – America’s first. However, the wreck had been, and still is, deteriorating so much that it was decided to bring as many artifacts and pieces of the wreck ashore as possible, conserve them, and put them on display at the Monitor Center. In 2003 came the crowning point, when the famous Monitor turret was lifted from the ocean floor and brought to the Mariners Museum, where it has been undergoing conservation ever since.
What to See First?
The Monitor Center is laid out, for the most part, in chronological order. First you walk through exhibits chronicling the building (of the CSS Virginia), and then you see what life was life aboard the Monitor, and then the sinking, and finally, the recovery. Depending on if you’re interest is the history of the Monitor and the Civil War, or the complexities of wreck recovery, you’ll either go slowly from beginning to end, or walk swiftly through the opening exhibits to get to the Large Artifact Gallery.
First, you’ll walk through the hallway connecting the Monitor center to the Mariners Museum. You’ll have a choice of turning left into a little room where there is a 5 minute film, a re-enaction of the sinking of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras, and then you’ll continue on into a brief history of ships from wood to steel, and then you’ll be in the “real deal,” the galleries focusing on the Monitor. Or – you can continue to walk down the hallway to see what’s in the Daily Press (our local newspaper’s ) changing gallery – typically an exhibit of photographs, or keep on going to the Batten Conservation Complex where you can see the turret and various other large pieces of machinery in their tanks – where they soak in water specially treated with chemicals in order to preserve the brittle metal. Walking to the end, you turn left and thus come to the Large Artifact Gallery from the other side.
The CSS Virginia
Lets turn left into the film room first, and walk through that, and into a large gallery which shows men at work on the CSS Virginia – the raised wreck of the Merrimac that had been scuttled, ineffectively, in Gosport Shipyard.
From there you enter the galleries with artifacts and information about the Monitor, from its building (and indeed, there’s a computer where you can build an ironclad of your own and see if it floats) to its crew. The Battle Theater has a 15-minute film running continuously recreating the battle of Hampton Roads.
Large Artifact Gallery
The Large Artifact Gallery consists of two floors. Some items still being conserved will be placed on the first floor, which recreates the engine room of the Monitor, while the turret will eventually be placed on the second floor.
Right now, there are two turrets there – one showing the turret as it looked after recovery – upside down, encrusted with marine life, with artifacts piled in heaps on the floor/ceiling along with mud and marine encrustation, and the other showing the turret as it originally was.
The history of the recovery of the turret, and other artifacts from the Monitor, are given in this gallery as well, with lots of TV screens to watch as the people involved speak about their activities.
At the end of the Gallery is the Recovery Theater, which has a film running every 25 minutes or so, about the actual recovery of the turret. The film is narrated by Sam Waterston, and is somewhat interactive, you can press buttons on your armrests to say yes or no to various questions.
Standing in the Large Artifact Gallery, facing the Recovery Theater, look to your right. In the middle of the courtyard is a gleaming white, eight-legged “spider.” This construct is what was used to pick up the turret from the ocean floor. On the wall of the building beyond is the silhouette of the Monitor, to size, so that you get a sense of where you’re standing “inside” the Monitor.
Look to your left. Outside the windows is a full-size replica of the Monitor. You can walk up and down its length and get some idea of the size of the ship. Unfortunately, you can’t go inside. Because it’s on land, it’s classified as a building, and building codes would not allow the construction of an interior replica.
After watching the film in the Recovery Theater, it’s time to go to the Batten Conservation Complex. Only actual workers are allowed inside this complex, but there are windows on both floors for you to see what is happening inside.
Know Before You Go
The goal of any museum is to tell you what you need to know when you’re in the museum. And the Monitor Center (as well as the Mariners’ Museum) has excellent explanatory placards everywhere. But you will get so much more pleasure out of the experience if you are actually familiar with the topics before you enter the museum – the information will stay with you longer and your brain won’t be quite so fatigued after a day of soaking in information!
How To Get There
The Mariners’ Museum is located at 100 Museum Drive, in Newport News, VA, 23606. For precise directions from your starting point – be it a hotel or private home, please check one of the many map and direction websites available on the web.
Exhibits change on a regular basis, so check the website at http://www.mariner.org to see what’s new.
Opening and Closing
The museum is open from Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM. It is open on Sunday from 12 PM to 5 PM. It is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Better Safe Than Sorry
The phone number for the museum is 757-596-2222. I’m going to suggest that you call the Museum before you set out to ensure that it is open. This may seem like a waste of time, but I actually had the experience this summer of dropping in to visit the museum only to discover it was closed because of a power outage caused by a storm the night before! Now that’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime event — I’ve been to the Museum dozens of times in the last several years and this was the first time it had ever happened!, nevertheless it doesn’t take long to make the call and it will save any disappointment later.