Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Raising, Conserving & Preserving the Past

John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

Underwater archeology has always been interesting to me and even though I don’t live anywhere near a body of water that has underwater shipwrecks, I’m still fascinated. When Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the RMS Titanic in 1985 I was barely two years old, but as soon as I was old enough to understand what an important discovery he’d made, I was hooked on shipwrecks.

However, this blog isn’t about Dr. Ballard or the Titanic (but this one was, in a way); it’s about the USS Monitor, the first ironclad ship in the US Navy during the Civil War. The Monitor, with its famous central gun turret, was lost on December 31, 1862 in rough seas, only a few months after its most famous battle at Hampton Roads. Sixteen men were lost when she sank.

While searching for something else entirely (which is often the case when I find interesting objects around here) I discovered a partial model of the Monitor and her Hampton Roads foe, the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimac, which is probably another blog in it’s own right). Below are pictures of the model, and since it’s only a cross-section, you can see it’s pretty detailed. Also below is an image of the famous turret and the two eleven-inch guns that made this ship a formidable presence on the water. The Monitor Center at The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, has a wonderful site dedicated to the efforts being made to conserve the turret, the two eleven-inch guns, and its engine, which were raised by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association and the US Navy between 2001 and 2002. The chemistry behind the conservation process is complicated, but fascinating all the same. Most recently, the tank of chemicals holding the engine was emptied and conservators began hammering away (ever-so-carefully, I promise) at the sediment that had accumulated during its 139 years underwater. You can see part of that process here.

USS Monitor (Cross-section model, above. Detail, below), Wood, metal and wax, H 11.25” x W 20.75” x D 13”, N0100.1973 New York State Historical Association/Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0100.1973

Thanks to the efforts of The Mariner’s Museum, a dedicated team of conservators, and I’m sure hundreds of others, an amazing part of the history of the United States Navy is being preserved for the future. And that’s what museums do, preserve the past for the future.

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