- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va.

Virginia really is for history lovers, and this year the state hopes to attract visitors with new ways of telling stories from its past — and from the nation’s.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate has new orientation and education centers. The steel spire of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps evokes the historic flag-raising at Iwo Jima. And the 18-month-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of America’s first permanent English settlement at Jamestown has captured the national spotlight with visits from both President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II.

In Newport News, though, the focus is on the Civil War.

A $30 million center dedicated to the USS Monitor opened March 9 — the 145th anniversary of the Union ship’s battle with the Confederate ship CSS Virginia (Merrimack) in the famous first clash of ironclads, which made wooden warships obsolete.

The USS Monitor Center embodies the Old Testament phrase “beating a sword into a plowshare,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. A ship built as a weapon of war, he said, now is “the centerpiece of an educational museum in a reunited nation not at war with itself.”

A new wing of the Mariners’ Museum, the center houses more than 1,200 artifacts pulled from the wreckage of the Monitor, from silverware and sconces to the engine and revolutionary gun turret.

The museum is one of four attractions, all within a mile of each other, on the city’s “Cultural Corridor on the Avenue of the Arts.” So if you visit the new center, you also might consider stopping at the Virginia Living Museum to view coastal birds and other native wildlife, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center to see art exhibitions or the Ferguson Center for the Arts to catch a performance.

Starting at the end

The Monitor, a new design by John Ericsson, and the Virginia, built atop the burned-out hull of the Union steam frigate Merrimack, fought for four hours near where the museum now stands.

Months later, the Monitor sank, upside down, during a storm 16 miles off North Carolina’s coast, at a site that was designated the nation’s first marine sanctuary in 1975. Sixteen men died.

The last thing the crew saw before the Monitor went under was a red signal lantern.

In the center’s unusual introductory “video art installation,” a red lantern appears and disappears in the distance, until, as one survivor would later write to his wife, “The Monitor was no more.”

Visitors emerge, perhaps a bit queasy, from the opening presentation about the storm to learn how the wreckage was discovered in 1973. Then they come upon the actual lantern — the first artifact recovered from the ship.

“This will be a surprise to people. Everybody will walk in with the assumption that we’re starting with the battle, what everything was famous for,” says Jeff Johnston, program specialist with the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

“We actually start it at the end, then take you back to the beginning,” Mr. Johnston says.

Ironclads and technology

The center is a way of bringing the Monitor to people, since the sanctuary site is so remote, says Anna Gibson Holloway, museum chief curator and USS Monitor Center curator.

She makes a point, though, of noting that the name “Monitor” is absent from the title of the center’s main exhibition, “Ironclad Revolution.”

“We wanted people to understand it’s not just about the Monitor,” Ms. Holloway says. “It’s about the ironclads, the Virginia, and it’s also about the technology… to research and recover the Monitor.”

The Virginia was destroyed by its crew on May 11, 1862, to keep it out of the hands of advancing Union forces. Items on display from the Virginia include its iron wheel and drawings that guided the ship’s construction.

Galleries explain how the ironclads were built, with a full-scale replica of part of the Virginia and a reproduction of the living quarters of the Monitor, and tell of the partnership among the U.S. Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the museum to recover artifacts from 1998 through 2002.

Throughout the museum are 6-foot-tall “personal story stations” with screens that visitors can touch to watch scientists, historians, modern naval officers and actors depicting historical figures talk about the ships.

A highlight is the high-definition “Battle Theater,” a modern version of the 19th-century cyclorama, a pictorial representation that encircles viewers. The theater has 45 seats that swivel so viewers can turn 360 degrees to experience the action and even feel the concussion of cannons firing as the Battle of Hampton Roads is re-created through digital paintings, lights and at-times startling sounds.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia destroyed two warships and damaged a third in the U.S. Navy’s worst defeat until Pearl Harbor. The next morning, as the narrator intones, “iron met iron.”

While the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia is considered a draw, the Virginia was stymied in its mission to end the Union’s blockade of the region.

The cheesebox on a raft

Outside the center, visitors may stroll the deck of a 170-foot, full-scale exterior model of the Monitor, which includes, of course, a re-creation of the original’s most famous feature: the revolving, cylindrical gun turret that eyewitnesses to the battle called a “cheese box on a raft.”

Inside the center, visitors can walk into a re-creation of the turret as it was found, upside down and encrusted with seashells. There’s also a cutaway that shows how the turret was made of 192 1-inch-thick iron plates fastened together in layers around an iron skeleton to form an 8-inch-thick shield.

The turret became the ancestor of every gun turret in the Navy because it was a significant design improvement. The Monitor could remain in place while training its two guns on a target while other ships were forced to move the entire vessel to aim their banks of guns.

Visitors also can climb a catwalk to peer into the 10-foot-high tank in which the actual turret sits as salts are slowly being leached from it. The conservation process could take about 20 more years.

Lots to seewithin an easy drive

The USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum is just one of several attractions in Newport News and is less than 35 miles from Virginia’s Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg. Here’s a brief guide:

In Newport News

{bullet} A wing of the Mariners’ Museum, 100 Museum Drive, Newport News. Adults, $12.50; children 6 to 17, $7.25; children 5 and under, free. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 800/581-7245 or mariner.org.

{bullet} Christopher Newport University, 1 University Place, Newport News. 757/594-8752 or fergusoncenter.cnu.edu.

In the Historic Triangle

{bullet} The storied re-creation of the town that was once the capital of Virginia Colony. Open year-round. For the town of Williamsburg and nearby attractions, see visitwilliamsburg.com; for Colonial Williamsburg itself see colonialwilliamsburg.com.

{bullet} On Route 31 South in Williamsburg, adjacent to Historic Jamestowne. Adults, $13.50, children 6-12, $6.25. Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; until 6 p.m. from June 15 to Aug. 15. 888/593-4682 or historyisfun.org.

{bullet} Colonial Parkway, Yorktown. Site of the British army’s surrender to Gen. George Washington on Oct. 19, 1781, signaling Britain’s defeat in the Revolutionary War. Yorktown Visitor Center open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Dec. 25 and New Year’s Day. All park grounds close at sunset. Combined admission to Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown is $10 per adult for a seven-day pass. Children 15 and under admitted free. 757/898-2410 or nps.gov/colo/ and follow the links.

{bullet} Route 1020, at the edge of Yorktown and near Yorktown Battlefield, 20 minutes from the restored area of Williamsburg. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; until 6 p.m. June 15 through August 15). Closed December 25 and New Year’s Day. Adults, $8.75; children 6-12, $4.50. historyisfun.org//yorktown-victory-center.htm.

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