Step inside the darkened introductory theater at the new USS Monitor Center this Friday and you may be surprised by one of its biggest stars. Not long after the projectors flicker on and the audio track starts, the words from a piece of Civil War correspondence seem to come to life, emerging letter by letter across a trio of screens as if written by a ghost.
Nearly 145 years ago, the emotional message penned by Monitor paymaster William Keeler to his wife recorded his experience of the ship's tragic 1862 sinking in surprisingly moving and poetic terms. And it's not the only old document that has been dusted off in the past few months as curators and archivists working on the $30-million addition to The Mariners' Museum look for evocative ways to transport visitors back into the past.
Bits of Victorian script show up everywhere here, incorporated in exhibit panels as well as audio, video and interactive computer presentations. So do rare period photographs, illustrations and blueprints, including some of the note-filled plans that Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson and his workmen used during the hurried 100-day construction of their famous warship.
Even old receipts, contractor's bills and other seemingly unimportant documents have jumped from the anonymity of the storage shelf to featured roles, helping to immerse the center's visitors in an experience that's unusually dense with historical texture and detail.
"This is where you really see the value of archival information," says Mariners' Museum assistant archivist Gregg Cina, showing off one of many letters written by Monitor fireman George Geer to his wife back home. "It's just basic information. But it gives you a unique perspective about what life was like aboard a revolutionary ship."
Geer's words show up most prominently in an interactive personal story station that brings visitors face-to-face with a video of a live actor as well as period photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and other archival materials. Though some of the material used here and in other parts of the exhibit comes from such sources as the Library of Congress and the Naval Historical Center, much of it comes from 72 different Civil War collections found in the Mariners' national prominent library collection.
So large are the museum's Monitor and Battle of Hampton Roads holdings that they take up nearly 55 linear feet of space on the library's shelves. Toss in the collection of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary - which includes another 10,000 photographs as well as 30 linear feet of well-stuffed document boxes - and you have what ranks as the world's finest assemblage of archival items related to the Monitor.
"Many people have said that the heart of this museum is its library," says Jay Moore, the archival technician in charge of the sanctuary's collection. "And with the construction of the Monitor Center, as you might expect, it's a heart that's beating pretty fast right now."
In recent years, especially, the museum has made several prominent additions to its Monitor collection, including two drawings produced by Confederate naval constructor John Luke Porter during the construction of the CSS Virginia at Gosport Naval Yard in Portsmouth.
Other key holdings include a set of 47 drawings purchased from the Rowland family, which operated the New York shipyard where the revolutionary plans for the Monitor came to life at the start of the Civil War.
"What makes them so historic is that - because the Monitor was built in 100 days - there's not a lot of documentation about its construction," Cina says. "And some of these notes are in Ericsson's own hand."
Blown up into a giant wall-sized mural, one of those historic drawings now provides an arresting backdrop to the space where mechanical artifacts recovered from the Monitor's sunken engine room will go on exhibit. Smaller but still evocative is the impact that a piece of 1862 sheet music - titled "Monitor Grand March" - has in one of the museum's other new galleries.
Hundreds of other archival items have contributed to the authentic fabric of the new exhibits. Among the most recently acquired is a set of four extremely rare watercolor scenes showing eyewitness views of the Battle of Hampton Roads from the perspective of the CSS Virginia.
"It's pretty rewarding - very rewarding, actually - to see all this come together. We spend so much time working with this material - organizing and arranging it - and we're not always sure that it will ever get out where the public can see it," Cina says.
"But now - as far as an archives professional is concerned - we've got the perfect storm. We're getting all this attention we didn't get before. People are hearing about all the great things we have. And some of them are even coming in to us with new donations."
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