From its entrance, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum makes clear that it is more interested in what's below the water's surface than above it.
The building resembles an 18th-century ship resting on its side, with timbers surrounding the outside to represent the ship's frame. Its floors are a composite of latex, sand, paint and concrete over a wire mesh, designed to resemble the ocean floor.
"The more sand that gets tracked in, the more authentic it looks," museum executive director Joe Schwarzer said.
Authenticity is Schwarzer's aim, with a focus on the long history of shipwrecks along the treacherous Hatteras coast.
He wants to the tell the story of sailors such as those who sailed aboard the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, whom Schwarzer describes as sailors "in a big iron box."
"The ocean is tossing you up and down and sideways," Schwarzer said. "The pump's stopped working. The coal is wet. You're in cold water up to your knees. You know the ship is going to go down. The sky is lit only by lamplight. You feel hopelessness and terror, strengthened only by your own experiences."
The Monitor, which fought to a draw with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia -- formerly the USS Merrimack -- in March 1862, later sank in a storm off the Hatteras coast. Its engine and gun turret were raised earlier this decade; government scientists are now working to preserve them.
The museum gets its name from the moniker given the Hatteras coastline because of the approximately 600 shipwrecks that litter the area. Most are blamed on Diamond Shoals, an area of shifting sand bars that extends 14 miles into the Atlantic.
Close by, the remnants of the cold Labrador Current meet the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, causing strong seas.
Although exhibits take up just 1,500 square feet of the total 7,000 square feet of display space the museum will have once it's completed, about 48,000 visitors tracked sand through the incomplete facility in their flip-flops, Teva sandals and sneakers last year.
For now, museum hours also depend on the availability of volunteers, although Schwarzer works to keep the attraction open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during the peak tourist season.
Schwarzer, who moved to Hatteras a decade ago to open the museum, estimates he needs to raise another $1.7 million to finish it. He has spent $6.7 million so far.
"Fundraising is slow," he acknowledged. "If we were in a major metropolitan area, this would have been finished five years ago."
The limited space includes a model of the original 1803 Cape Hatteras light, which used oil lamps, and the first lens installed in the lighthouse, in 1853. There also are ship models, including one of the Hamlet, an early-20th century boat that took the first porpoise in captivity to the New York Aquarium for display.
The Hamlet model, crafted in the late 1950s or early 1960s by Dixie Burrus Browning, is so accurate that it has removable stays and masts that come down. Her grandfather, Dozier Burrus, was the ship's captain. Schwarzer's main exhibit, though, is about not a sailor, but an aviator -- Army Gen. Billy Mitchell, who proved in the 1920s that airplanes could sink battleships, an idea that was openly ridiculed by other military leaders of the time.
In tests conducted off the Virginia capes in 1921 and two years later at Hatteras, Mitchell proved his detractors wrong. In the September 1923 tests, Mitchell's bombers sank two obsolete U.S. warships -- the USS New Jersey and USS Virginia -- from the air.
Mitchell's campaign for increased air power caused him to be increasingly critical of his superiors, until he was court-martialed in 1925 on a charge of conduct of a nature to bring discredit on the military service. He was convicted and suspended from duty for five years; he immediately resigned from the military.
Among the artifacts on display are photos from Mitchell's 1923 bombing tests and the radio shack he used for them. The items were first shown during the 2003 First Flight Centennial celebration.
Mitchell's prediction in 1924 that Japan would start a war in the Pacific with an air and sea attack upon Pearl Harbor and an aerial attack on the Philippines came true 17 years later. He was posthumously awarded a special congressional Medal of Honor in 1946.
"Mitchell was a tireless promoter of airspace, but he ignored military protocol," Schwarzer said.
With that attitude, he likely found acceptance on Hatteras Island, where locals are known for an independent streak combined with a healthy skepticism about authority.
Eventually, Schwarzer said, his museum also will include artifacts from the Monitor and from wreckage found near Beaufort Inlet that is believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge, flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard.
The main haul of Monitor relics, including its engine and gun turret, have been given to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.; once Schwarzer's museum is complete, it is to receive about 25 major artifacts from the Monitor that tell the story of its wreck.
It also will get a few relics from the wreck believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge -- most are going to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort -- to teach visitors about the age of piracy along North Carolina's coast.
North Carolina is late to the game of valuing its maritime history, but people like Schwarzer are trying to make up for lost time.
"I hear people say that Virginia has so much maritime history, but North Carolina has as much if not more," he said. "North Carolina is trying to do the best it can in a catch-up capacity. There's a growing awareness that this is important."