A rare history-related topic was in the national evening news recently when the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia announced that it was closing its Monitor Center Laboratory. The laboratory housed the gun turret of the U.S.S. Monitor, as well as other Monitor artifacts.
The Monitor was an ironclad ship, the first of its kind built by the US, and famous for engaging in an epic Civil War battle with a Confederate ironclad, the C.S.S. Virginia. In March 1892, the Confederates tried to break a Union blockade off the coast of southern Virginia and came close to succeeding, due mostly to the Virginia. She had taken down two Union blockade ships and was working on a third when the Monitor, which had been commissioned just a week before, showed up and successfully defended the third ship and saved the blockade.
Both ironclads limped off to fight another day, but by the end of the year, they both would be destroyed. In May, with the Union close-by, the Confederates blew up the U.S.S. Virginia rather than allowing her to fall into Union hands. In December, the Monitor was on its way to join the blockade of Charleston Harbor when it was caught in a storm and sunk near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The Monitor lay quietly at the bottom of the ocean for 111 years, until it was discovered in 1973 by a Duke University research ship. Since then, bits and pieces of the ship have been salvaged and housed at the Mariners Museum. The Monitor had another moment-in-the-national-news last March, when the remains of two sailors found in the Monitor’s gun turret when it was raised in 2002 were buried with great pomp and circumstance in Arlington National Cemetery.
The closing of the Monitor lab at the Mariners Museum was deemed newsworthy not so much because of the Monitor’s historical significance but because the lack of funds was tied to the entire U.S. Government Budget Debacle of 2013. The Monitor, you see, belongs to the U.S government, which until December had a contract with the museum to store and conserve the Monitor artifacts. With the stalemate over the federal budget last year, the contract was allowed to lapse and even now that the budget has passed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the government agency responsible for the Monitor) still lacks the funds to keep up the Monitor. The museum says that it costs about a half million a year to house and conserve the Monitor parts.
I was in the Hampton Roads area a couple of weeks ago and had planned to go to the Mariners Museum specifically to see the Monitor exhibit. So I was disappointed when the announcement came out that the Monitor Lab was closed. I decided to go to the museum anyway, which was a good call. The “laboratory” that was closed houses the turret and other large parts of the ship. Normally, visitors are allowed to peer in on it through a large glass window but the whole thing is covered with tarp. The rest of the Monitor exhibit, as well as the rest of the museum (which has an endless array of ship figureheads, ship models, Titanic artifacts and other objects related to naval history) is open and worth seeing.