Part 1: It's time to man your battle stations

When the USS Monitor Center opens this Friday, there will be more at stake than the $30 million spent on recreating the epic story of one of history's greatest naval vessels. Bowed by years of lagging attendance, The Mariners' Museum hopes to remake itself and its audience through a dramatically new kind of history museum experience - one that will not only raise its profile but also redefine its future

The museum's partner at the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary - which has contributed an estimated $10 million to the project - hopes to pump up its public stature, too. The opening represents a landmark event for it and its parent agency - the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration - which made the unprecedented investment with the aim of creating a nationally prominent showcase for its cultural resources and sanctuary programs.

Only time will tell if the ambitious venture pays off as intended. But if the center succeeds as well as early test audiences seem to indicate, it could not only elevate the Mariners' and its partner but also provide the spark that transforms the region's overlooked Civil War history into a formidable tourism engine. Here's an insider's guide to the 63,500-square-foot collection of attractions designed to make that happen:


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Ironclad revolution

Created by New York exhibit designers DMCD, this artfully orchestrated experience uses theatrical lighting, innovative video and audio technology and an unfolding series of immersive environments to expand upon the Monitor's story in a rich and often unexpectedly provocative fashion. "We've got great stuff in terms of artifacts - and we've got great, often very personal stories to tell," Mariners' curator Anna Holloway says. "But we didn't want to be trapped in the traditional paradigm of a history museum. We wanted new ways to make the great stuff we have as interesting and relevant as possible."

1) Early versions of the impressionistic video and audio environment that depicts the Monitor's sinking made some test viewers so queasy that it had to be reeled in. But the storm-tossed drama off Cape Hatteras, N.C. - some of which was recreated with Civil War re-enactors at the Yoder Barn - still delivers an arresting introduction to the nearly 150-year-long story of the famous ship. Cued by audio, visitors must then find their way across a transparent stretch of floor, beneath which lies a replica of the partially buried, upside-down wreck. They're also introduced to the long, oft-frustrated attempt to find and save the sunken ship - plus one of its most evocative artifacts. "The red signal lantern was reportedly the last thing seen when the Monitor went down - and the first thing recovered by archaeologists," Holloway says. "It's the symbol that unites the historical story of the Monitor with the modern story of its recovery."

2) Stepping aboard a recreated gun deck from the 1798 warship USS United States, visitors explore a remarkable collection of ship models, interactive computer screens and video that shows how 19th-century improvements in propulsion and firepower doomed the Age of Sail. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory comes to life in an interactive personal story station, describing the strategic arguments behind his decision to build the CSS Virginia. A riveting modern video shows how wooden hulls disintegrate into deadly splinters when struck by explosive shells. Also included is an absorbing historical video game in which players struggle to maneuver their sailing ships during a naval battle. "It's not just a video game," Holloway says. "It gives you tutorials, definitions and historical background. There's no way you can't learn about old school naval warfare if you play it."

3) At 50 feet long and 14 feet high, a massive replica of the Virginia's bow - shown under construction at Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth - provides a jaw-dropping reminder of why fearful Union sailors described her as a "monster." Outside the dramatically illuminated ship, an interactive personal story station introduces visitors to the Virginia's pioneering if often squabbling pair of designers, while inside they'll find an impressive cutaway view of its armor and a gun deck being prepared for its cannons. Exhibit fabricators modeled a pair of sculpted Civil War shipbuilders on Virginia War Museum director John V. Quarstein - who served as a consultant - and Monitor National Marine Sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston - who served as co-curator. "When people walk in, they're going to see the Virginia's casemate as it was being constructed," Holloway says. "We'll be adding new things to it for a long time."

4) Inventor John Ericsson's original working drawings and blueprints give some real historical muscle to a replica of the Naval Board Room where Union officers debated over his revolutionary plans. Equally provocative is the "Design an Ironclad" video game, where would-be naval engineers pick from a staggering array of historical options in an effort to win a thumbs up from the Monty Pythonlike judges of the board. In "100 Days to Design a Warship," visitors push a sliding I-Wall computer screen across a timeline, pulling up scores of period drawings, photographs and documents as well as animated graphics and narrative audio. "One thing we didn't want to do was put a book on the wall," Holloway says. "But if you really want it - and we think a lot of people will - this gives you tons of stuff showing how this revolutionary ship was built."

5) The Monitor's pioneering crew was the first in history to live entirely below their ship's waterline. But though the resulting spaces were sometimes cramped, a meticulous recreation of the ship's living quarters shows that the officers' cabins, in particular, were anything but primitive. Exhibit fabricators used archaeological artifacts to recreate the glass-chimneyed oil lamps exactly. Narrative audio and lighting effects work with still another personal story station to reproduce not only the only physical sensation of living below deck but also the emotions and experiences of the Monitor's often bewildered crew. "It's an immersion experience," Johnston says. "We've taken something that doesn't exist anymore and found a way that allows you to step inside it."

6) Produced by Pyramid Studios in Richmond using a Canadian ship modeler and a London artist, the 13-minute-long Battle Theater blends high-definition digital paintings, immersive audio and dramatic lighting effects to recreate the historic March 9, 1862 clash between the Monitor and the Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Swiveling seats - a concept dreamed up during an after-work brainstorming session at a local bar - enable viewers to take in the 7-by-27-foot trio of primary screens, while two massive gears spin and whir overhead as if you were a sailor sweating out the battle beneath the Monitor's turret. "The level of detail is impeccable," Johnston says, describing the images of the ships and the eye-popping vistas seen from the air and the surrounding shore. "I wouldn't say we got it 100 percent - but we're close. And it will let people see something that everybody has heard of but nobody has seen since 1862."

Great Artifact Hall

Flanked by panoramic walls of glass, the Great Artifact Hall explores the Monitor's gun turret, steam engine and other hallmark parts through an open, two-story structure that enables visitors to imagine themselves both on and beneath the deck of the historic vessel. It also traces the dramatic underwater archaeological expeditions in which the lost wreck was found and its signature elements recovered.

7) Created by Florida-based Zibits Studios, a full-size archaeological replica of the gun turret shows what the giant artifact looked like when it was pulled from the 240-foot depths off Cape Hatteras in August 2002. Filled with the ship's overturned cannon and gun carriages as well as the skeletal remains and belongings of some of its crew, the upside-down iron drum preserved the sinking vessel's last moments in an eerily evocative way, affecting everyone who peered into its silt-packed interior. "They did such an incredible job," Johnston says, describing how technicians used seashells from the actual turret to create the encrusted surface of the replica. "The only thing that's missing is the smell."

8) Since the actual gun turret will require at least 20 years of conservation treatment, the museum's exhibit fabricators built a full-size replica to take its place on a sturdy steel ring in the center of the hall. Designed to illustrate the laminated iron-plate construction of the armor walls as well as the operation of the cannon and gun carriages, the cutaway view of the turret also enables visitors to peer down through the floor at recreations of a massive supporting bulkhead and driving gear. "I love this - because I've been looking at the real thing for I don't know how many years - and it landed upside down when the Monitor sank," says Johnson, a leading authority on the ship's construction. "I knew it would be good. But this is so good that it's become more than a placeholder. It's going to be permanent."

9) Constructed by Northrop Grumman shipyard apprentices from donated Navy steel, a $1 million full-size model of the Monitor enables visitors to image what it might have been like to walk across the deck of one of history's most famous warships. A time-lapse video illustrates the construction process, while interpretive panels in the deck compare the replica to Civil War photos of the original. Illuminated at night, the 173-foot-long black-and-red hull will become an instant landmark when seen across Lake Maury from Warwick Boulevard. "People always think of the Monitor as tiny. But when you walk out on the deck, you really get the feeling of just how big she was," Johnston says. "And the shipyard isn't finished yet. They still want to do more to make it look like the real ship."

10) Sanctuary archaeologists and Navy divers struggled to recover the Monitor's gun turret in a series of challenging missions that stretched from 1998 to 2002. Produced by Williamsburg-based Two Rivers studios, the Recovery Theater blends computer technology, dramatic underwater footage and freshly shot interviews to put visitors on the enormous barge - then asks them to grapple with the bad weather, treacherous currents and funding problems that almost doomed the epic 2002 effort. "People already know we recovered the turret. They wouldn't be here if we hadn't," Johnston says. "But this is a way to get them to understand all of the problems we faced out there - and the decisions we had to make in order to recover the turret."

Conservation wing

The 20,000-square-foot conservation wing is one of the country's largest facilities for treating marine artifacts. It's also the only one of its size where the public actually gets to see the laborious process unfold.

11) Visitors can get a bird's-eye view of the Monitor's historic gun turret by taking the stairs to the three-level observation deck that looks out over the center's enormous wet lab. From here, they'll be able to gaze down into a series of industrial-sized tanks that house not only the turret but also the steam engine, cannons, gun carriages and other metal artifacts recovered from the wreck site. The turret alone will require 20 years of work before the destabilizing chloride compounds that threaten its iron plates are removed by a electrochemical process called electrolytic reduction. Conservators will have to disassemble all 192 plates of the laminated drum in order to carry out the painstaking treatment. "It a very time-consuming, complicated and involved process," Chief Curator Marcie Renner says. "And unfortunately, there's no single recipe for treating every artifact."

12) Below the observation desk visitors will find a giant flat-screen monitor linked to a series of video cameras that show various conservation jobs taking place in the wet lab. They'll be able to read the weekly lab notes describing the work and see the computer station that records the pH levels and corrosion potential in each of 10 large treatment tanks. At the interactive personal story station, members of museum's conservation team will talk about various artifacts and the processes by which they are being saved from disintegration. "We're actively treating more than 100 artifacts right now. They range in size from the turret to a button," Renner says. "So it's really exciting for us to know that visitors will get the chance to watch us work."