Va. museum shuts lab with USS Monitor artifacts, citing lack of federal funds

Courtesy of Library of Congress - The deck and turret of the USS Monitor are seen from the bow.

The Virginia museum that holds the famous turret of the sunken Civil War ironclad warship USS Monitor says it is closing the laboratory that houses the artifact because of a lack of federal funding.

The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News has been the congressionally designated repository for Monitor artifacts since 1987. It also houses, among other things, the legendary ship’s two giant guns, propeller and steam engine.

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The private museum, which charges $12 admission, says it is taking the action because the federal government, which owns the artifacts, has failed to pay what the museum considers its proper share for their conservation.

The museum also says visitorship had fallen far short of projections related to the Monitor.

Artifact conservation for the Monitor cost about $500,000 last year, the museum said in a statement.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has a Monitor partnership with the museum, provided 10 percent of conservation costs last year and no conservation funding in 2012, the museum said.

“These are federal government artifacts,” museum president Elliot Gruber said in the statement. “Providing the funds for their well being should be the responsibility of the federal government.”

The situation “has placed a tremendous strain on our budget over the last several years,” he said, and it “has limited funds we have available to conserve our own 35,000 artifacts . . . [and] our ability to develop new exhibitions and to maintain our facility.”

A spokesman for NOAA responded in an e-mail:

“NOAA recognizes the importance of these artifacts and will continue to support [them] as appropriations allow. These . . . artifacts are owned by the people of the United States and, at the request of the Mariners Museum, entrusted to the museum for conservation.”

The Monitor is famous for its March 9, 1862, slugfest with the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, also known as the Merrimack, not far from the museum. The battle, a draw, was history’s first between ironclad warships and was probably the most important naval battle of the Civil War.

The Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras 10 months later, killing 16 of its 62-man crew.

The wreck was located in 1973 by a Duke University research ship. NOAA was worried that the ship was crumbling on the bottom and with the Navy’s help began retrieving parts of the vessel.

The propeller was pulled up in 1998, and the 20-ton engine in 2001. In an amazing feat of maritime archaeology and engineering, the 120-ton turret came up in 2002.

The turret contained the ship’s two guns and the skeletal remains of two of its sailors. The sailors were buried in Arlington National Cemetery last March.

In 2007, the museum and NOAA opened the $30 million USS Monitor Center, a large extension of the museum built to house the ship’s artifacts.

NOAA and the federal government paid about $13 million of the center’s cost, with the rest coming from the city of Newport News, the state of Virginia and private donors, the museum said.

The center includes the Batten Conservation Laboratory Complex, where artifacts are conserved and prepared for display.

It is the larger of the complex’s two labs — the so-called wet lab — that is being shut down. The lab contains the 90,000-gallon water tank in which the corroded turret is immersed for conservation.

With the arrival of the Monitor material, projections were that the museum’s visitorship would grow by 100,000 a year, Gruber said.

“That never happened,” he said. The museum now gets about 60,000 visitors a year.

The labs originally had 10 staff members and expenditures of about $700,000 a year. They now have five staff members and annual expenditures of about $500,000.

Although the museum is hurting financially, officials said, the artifacts are safe and stable.

“Obviously, we’re not going to let these things fall apart,” said David Krop, the center’s director. “This is the largest marine metals conservation project in the entire world.”

Staff members have covered the tank with a tarp to minimize evaporation. They also shut off the lights, turned off the live webcams and ended behind-the-scenes tours, the museum said.

“NOAA, I have to say, is a very strong partner and an important partner for us,” Gruber said. “The Monitor is near and dear to their heart, and they have the responsibility for its upkeep and conservation. Our role is to help them.”

“I think we all agree we want this to move forward,” said Anna Holloway, the center’s curator. “We want these artifacts out there for the American people. So it’s, I hope, just a little bump in the road.”

 
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