Entering the grounds of the Mariners’ Museum—a serpentine drive through tranquil gardens and nautical sculptures—it is easy to forget that it sits squarely in the midst of Newport News, VA, just a stone’s throw from Interstate 64. One of the world’s largest collections of all-things-maritime resides here in a contemporary building accentuated by 550 acres of rolling parkland, a 167-acre lake and a 5-mile nature trail.

The Mariners’ Museum opened in 1930, thanks to the generosity and vision of Archer Huntington, son of ship-building magnate and philanthropist Collis P. Huntington. It is the largest privately held and maintained museum in the country.

The museum’s library contains almost 2 million documents—everything from ship captains’ letters home to original charts and maps of intrepid explorers, to genealogical records of our nation’s first immigrants. Library records date back to the early 1500s. There is also a collection of more than 650,000 maritime images from the last two centuries, including images by renowned photographers Edwin Levick and A. Aubrey Bodine and the pleasure boat empire of Chris-Craft Industries.

Both permanent and temporary exhibits—ranging from crude sailmaking tools, celestial charts and quadrants, and whale teeth—underscore the deep connection of mankind to the sea.

Large figureheads throughout the museum serve to identify ships at sea.

Exhibits at the museum, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, focus not only on coastal Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, but also maritime centers around the world, such as the “International Small Craft Center” exhibit on wind-powered boats used in trade and transport, which includes acquisitions from Italy and Greenland.

In similar fashion, the “Age of Exploration” exhibition introduces visitors to the “footprints” of the world’s voyagers through instruments, navigational charts and rare books that chronicle expeditions dating back to the 15th century.

In the Great Hall of Steam, the vast display of models depicts the breadth of design and function of steam-powered vessels across the globe. According to museum docent John Crosthwaite, models of this precision were constructed for two reasons: to offer prospective owners a sneak preview of their ship and to serve as a visual aide for workers who might otherwise be unable to interpret the complexities of the blueprint. Another exhibit that delights visiting schoolchildren highlights the lives of pirates. Visitors will learn about legendary figures from the past, as well as modern-day swashbucklers and scoundrels of the high seas. The gallery even includes a theater set for kids to act out their “inner pirate.”

By far, the most exciting development in recent years is the opening of the USS Monitor Center, which culminates a remarkable recovery effort that began when divers first discovered the ship’s remains off Cape Hatteras in 1973. A celebration is planned for the center’s opening on March 9.

The date is meaningful—145 years ago the famed clash between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia took place March 9 during the Battle of Hampton Roads. This Civil War battle, in which two ironclads fought each other for the first time, marked the birth of mechanized warfare at sea.

Visitors begin their USS Monitor experience witnessing the harrowing last moments of the ironclad’s existence, as gale force winds thrust it to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean just months after battle. From there, they fast-forward to 1973 and learn how the USS Monitor was discovered and the daunting challenges faced by divers in recovering its artifacts from a depth of 240 feet.

The USS Monitor Center takes visitors through a series of high-tech stations offering a slice of Civil War-era history. For example, personal story stations throughout the gallery bring real people back to life—from photograph to three-dimensional walking, talking figures of cinematic magic. CNN-type headlines stream across electronic billboards, conveying news and trade of the day.

One station translates the construction and launching of the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (a retrofit of the wooden frigate, Merrimack) by recreating a “set” from the Gosport Navy Yard in the days leading up to the war. Here, a visitor comes face to face with the massive scale of the task at hand: the size and weight of its wooden beams, iron plates and screws.

Another station displays the original design and construction plans of the USS Monitor, which was built by the Union in direct response to the threatening CSS Virginia. These documents reveal the impressive industrial support the warship had. Designed by Swedish-born inventor John Ericcson, the USS Monitor was completed in a mere 100 days using material from Baltimore and New York ironworks.

A high-definition theater, complete with surrounding screens and sound, captures the essence of the famous battle between the two warships with potent effect. Moviegoers experience the blood of battle and the roar of cannons in an intimate setting. “This theater brings the rest of the exhibit back to life and really underscores the importance of the Battle of Hampton Roads,” said Justin Lyons, the museum’s marketing director.

The winner of that battle is still a matter of debate. The museum, in fact, hosts a panel discussion each spring in which historians and other scholars deliberate over the finer points of the military engagement. Most amateur history buffs have settled upon calling the Battle of Hampton Roads “a draw” and leaving it to posterity to decide, but a visit to the new gallery will give anyone enough background to form an opinion.

The USS Monitor Center offers much more than comprehensive accounts of Civil War era history. The new gallery houses an impressive conservation area that treats the curious visitor to the painstaking work of preserving the more than 1,200 ironclad artifacts recovered to date. It is here that one contemplates the engineering marvels of lowering by crane a several-ton steam engine or turret into a tub of fresh water for the purpose of halting its deterioration.

The conservation area is flanked by an equally expansive hall dedicated to telling the story of the USS Monitor recovery mission and the modern heroes who made it possible. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Navy played major roles in the recovery effort, providing divers, equipment and funds to secure pieces from the wreckage. The ship’s remains are publicly owned by NOAA.

To mark its significance, the underwater wreck site was designated a national marine sanctuary by NOAA in 1975. In the Large Artifact Gallery, a life-size replica of the ship’s turret depicts how it looked to divers when resting on the ocean floor.

Just outside the glass-paneled wall rests a full-scale model of the USS Monitor’s exterior, built by Northrop Grumman Newport News—a longtime supporter of the museum. The replica punctuates the ending of the amazing story.

Museum staff are eager to unveil this latest gem. “The new USS Monitor exhibit solidifies the museum by acting as a centerpiece,” Lyons said. “It has become the resting place for all Monitor artifacts.”

Donors and partners also believe that the new gallery will expand visitation and mark the Mariners’ Museum as an internationally recognized destination.

Sally Mills is a freelance writer who lives with her family on a small farm in King & Queen County, VA.

Mariners’ Museum

The Mariners’ Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $12.50 for adults; $7.25 for ages 6-17; and free for ages 5 and younger.

The Mariners’ Museum Park spans 550 acres of privately maintained, naturally wooded property where visitors may walk, bike or picnic. Within the park is the 167-acre Lake Maury, named for Matthew Fontaine Maury, a 19th century oceanographer and native Virginian.

Directions: Take Interstate 64 to Exit 258-A. Travel 2.5 miles to the intersection of Warwick Boulevard and J. Clyde Morris Boulevard (Avenue of the Arts). Continue straight through the intersection and take the first left onto Museum Drive. The entrance is directly ahead.

For information call 757-596-2222, or 800-581-7245 or visit www.mariner.org.

The Mariners’ Museum is located in Newport News—central to the Hampton Roads area between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach—and is convenient to other cultural attractions and waterfront activities. With a little planning, one can begin in Newport News and turn a visit into a multi-day adventure that incorporates other Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network sites in nearby cities. For information on other sites in the Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.