There’s a tendency, I think, to overlook the familiar. I’d heard of the Mariners’ Museum for years. Month after month, I pushed back a visit. I’m not a boat-loving person. Not my area of expertise or interest. So, like an idiot, I avoided this museum.
Now I’m ticked at myself over how many kickbutt exhibits I’ve missed over the years.
Clash of the Titans
This museum is a working museum. In fact, they’re best known for their preservation of the USS Monitor – a Civil War ship that didn’t exactly win the first Battle of the Ironclads (or lose it), but it did prove the worth of iron ships over wooden ones. Note the plural ships. The North had the Monitor, but the South had the CSS Virginia (originally called the Merrimack before the Confederacy renamed it, hence the current Monitor-Merrimack Bridge Tunnel not too far from the site of this famous battle).
So How is it Possible That Two “Firsts” Meet?
Like, if the South had the first ironclad ship, shouldn’t they have wrecked the crap out of the North at sea?
Enter a woman named Mary Louveste. A former slave, she secured a position in the Confederacy as a domestic worker. In reality, she was a Level 10 spy. Given her station, the Southerners openly talked about the ship and how helpful it would be in defeating the North. Granted, a lot of people knew it was going to be built, but the scale of it? How big a deal this was going to be? Yeah. She knew she had to give the United States a heads up.
So what to do?
The obvious. Homegirl likely copied plans for the ship and made it ALL the way to Washington DC (with the help of the Underground Railroad and the U.S. Army) with every detail she knew about this ship.
Another account has it that a pro-North guy working in the navy yard knew that Mary was a spy and shoved her some paperwork under the table. Either way, she had to get this info about a magical ship to the North.
Great story, but I have to throw some facts at you. The North was aware of ironclad ships. Pre-Civil War, there were plans to have one made, but it never seemed necessary. France put out the first, “oh, my God, this works for real,” ironclad ships. And they were super necessary. Bigger, badder cannons were wrecking the crap out of wooden ships. But iron ships? They could take the day. Shout out to the Crimean War. It gave us a lot.
Anyway, the two ironclad ships met in March 1862. Both sides lost. The Monitor lost a lot less though and managed to support the North as it moved up the Peninsula.
The Peninsula Campaign is that time when the Northern guy, McClellan, fought windmills, imagined dragons, and generally wasted everyone’s time.
Back to the museum…
As soon as you walk into the building, you realize that this isn’t your grandma’s museum. It’s fun and interactive. History isn’t something you read here. It’s something you participate in.
Right around the first corner, the museum invites you to become a part of the exhibit. They ask you to talk about your connection to the sea. Here’s a picture I shared on my Instagram.
If that note from the vet doesn’t hit you in the feels, lose my number. Also, alert your family that you’re dead inside.
You’ll need a full day to visit this place. Two, if you intend to take in the 550-acre park and award-winning Noland Trail the surrounds the site.
But, let’s say you had to focus your visit. What can’t you miss?
Well, the actual signal lamp from the USS Monitor for starters. The story goes that this was the last thing seen of the ship as she went down. People kept looking for the light and it was always there. Until it wasn’t. Ready for some cosmic weirdness? When the ship was found in 1973, this was the first thing they could pull up. Creeeeepy. Click here and scroll down to see the red lantern.
My Favorite Three Exhibits
In the USS Monitor Center, look for items pulled out of the wreckage. Archeologists and divers found all sorts of things, but the one that’s the real gut punch is the sailor’s coat. A young sailor (that’s how I imagine him anyway), left it in the turret as the ship went down. According to the exhibit, it was found in 2004 in 174 pieces before being painstakingly put back together.
Speed and Innovation Center
I hadn’t seen a catamaran up close before this visit. They have one, and not just any old cat. They have the catamaran that won the 2013 America’s Cup. Like, the whole freaking thing. It takes up an entire wing of the museum and is the largest complete boat in the collection. Also, there’s a place to test out your strength. The guys that race these things need to move their arms at about 500-600 revolutions per minute. Because the curator of this exhibit is a trolling little freaker, they put in a machine to test your rpms. I maxed out at 116 after 25 seconds…moving on.
The Miniature Ships of August F. and Winifred Crabtree
But my favorite thing can be found in the Crabtree Ship gallery. Y’all, these people carefully (and over many, many years) put together mini versions of ships from Ancient Egypt and Rome all the way to Industrial Age frigates. The museum’s tagline is, “one of the most comprehensive maritime collection in the world.” They pretty much nailed it.
Other things to see
There’s the Wet Lab, which is the largest conservation center for archaeological marine metals. It is enclosed, but one wall is glass and you can see the conservators and archeologists at work (literally saving history like the bosses they are).
And you can’t miss the Age of Exploration Center, taking us from the Paleolithic Age to the Viking Era, through the Age of Exploration (where they do not overly worship on the throne of Columbus, thank God), and on to the Modern Era.
And don’t forget to…
Prove how strong you are by going through the Lord Nelson section of the museum. They have four cannonballs (12, 24, 32, and 68 pounds) for you to try lifting. I’ll have you know that I successfully lifted them all, as did all the girls I visited this with. Can’t say the same for the guys. #HowYouLikeMeNow
In all seriousness, go. It is so much fun. Take a meal and picnic outdoors if you need a break. Bring comfortable shoes and a battery pack for your phone – you’ll take a billion pictures. Mine died 20 minutes in…
(Hint: Clear your nose before you go. You’ll need to sniff your way through to ace a test near the lobby.)
Here’s the website, http://www.marinersmuseum.org. Now go!