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.