As indicated in Part 1, I last visited the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, in 1957. I have only vague memories of what the museum actually looked like then, however, the staff at the museum has been kind enough to search their photo archives and provide the photo below.
Sometime over the years, the museum has undergone a significant makeover to accommodate its growing collections, including a new wing dedicated to the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.
With collections totaling approximately 32,000 items, divided between works of art and three-dimensional objects, there is far more than can be even touched on here. I have selected several items that highlight the breadth of Museum’s collections housed within the 90,000 square feet of exhibition space.
About the Entrance
Today, as in 1950,, the museum is “guarded” by a pair of cannons. It is not clear if these are the same two in both photos. The two ornate cannons that stand watch today were manufactured in Spain during the reign of Ferdinand VI, King of Spain (1713 – 1759). The ornate pattern on the cannons includes the king’s coat of arms and the Spanish crown. The cannons were mounted in the Cabana Fortress of Havana, Cuba, apparently up through the Spanish-American war, after which, they were stored in a dungeon. The cannons remained in the dungeon until representatives from the Mariners’ Museum were in Cuba in 1936 asking about “ornate bronze cannons.”
To me, the era of great sailing ships congers visions of billowing sails and gleaming light reflecting from the ships figurehead. The Mariners’ Museum boasts the largest collection of ship figureheads in the world, many of which are displayed throughout the museum. Figureheads meant different things to different ships and crews. Some represented the name of the ship while others were to protect the ship from the perils of the sea.
Other figureheads honored individuals. For example, the multicolored three-quarter scale Jenny Lind represents and honors Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (1820-1887), referred to as the “Swedish Nightingale.” The figurehead was attributed the schooner Nightingale, built in 1851 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Jenny Lind was known for her charity work for seaman’s homes and hospitals, and it is reported that at least four, and perhaps as many as 35, vessel were named for her.
Figureheads fell out of fashion as the age of sailing vessels declined.
Art of the Sea
The Mariners’ Museum features an extensive collection of amazing maritime art. Of particular interest is the fascinating mystery surrounding forgeries of paintings by James Edward Butterworth. In a dedicated gallery there are 35 of his paintings plus a modern forgery. The gallery leads the observer into a detective mystery, first describing the keys to and characteristics of Butterworth’s paintings, then tasks the observer to solve the mystery and identify the counterfeit painting.
Many other note artists are also represented.
There are approximately 2000 models of boats and ships of almost every type of vessel ever constructed. These include models of ancient Greek, Egyptian and Asian vessels, sailing vessels of all types and nationalities, as well as steamships, ocean liners, and warships.
One model illustrates that neither the Monitor nor the Virginia were the first ironclad war vessels. The concept of providing metallic armor to wooden vessels dates back to at least 1592, when Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Sin led a fleet of armored Kohbudson, or “turtle ships,” against an invading Japanese fleet. Still, it would not be until the mid-19th century that true ironclad vessels would be adopted by the world’s navies.
There are also builder’s models. In an age before blueprints and computer aided design, designers built scale models of ships. Shipbuilders would take measurements and shapes from the model and scale them to full size to build the ship.
International Small Boat Center
New since I last visited the museum is the small boat center, housed in a separate, easily accessible building. This is a collection of fifty or so small boats, some familiar and some not, from native canoes and Asian sampans to sailboats and dinghy’s to speedboats and classic runabouts—even a vessel that reminds me of the African Queen.
One interesting vessel is the 5-ft, 11-in. sailboat April Fool. In 1968, Hugo Vihlen, a pilot for Delta Airlines, sailed from Casablanca, Morocco to Florida in the diminutive craft. In 84 days he sailed 4,100 miles. He came within six miles of the Florida coast, but could not navigate across the strong current of the Gulf Stream and he and his boat were hauled aboard a Coast Guard Cutter to complete the trip.
The Walking Beam Engine
Typically a walking beam steam engine has the cylinder and piston mounted vertically. The piston moves up and down as the engine runs, rocking the walking beam… The beam pushes/pulls on a crankshaft that drives the paddle wheel. The walking beam assembly on display outside the museum is from the 284-ft long (overall) vessel Albany, a steam ship operated by the Hudson River Line from 1880 to 1931. The vessel was sold, renamed the Potomac, and operated as an excursion ship until 1948. Later it was purchased by the Chesapeake Corporation of Virginia to be used to haul pulpwood up the York River to the paper mill at West Point.
This is but a sampling of the vast collection of maritime artifacts housed in the Mariner’s Museum. Interestingly, the Museum houses displays for those interested in almost any war, any period in history, any aspect of vessel design, any culture or any aspect of watercraft use. If the Monitor Center is a semester worth of information, the Mariners’ Museum is a graduate program in all things related to ships, sailing and the men and equipment that paddled dugout canoes to the crews of nuclear submarines, and everything in between.
100 Museum Drive, Newport News, Virginia
Open: Monday-Saturday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm; Sunday 11:00 am to 5:00 pm
Admission: $12.00 Adults ($18.00 with movie); Students $10.00 ($16.00 with Movie
Researching for writing is such fun, really. I typically look for multiple sources to corroborate critical issues like names, dates, locations, and in this case ships. For example, the Jenny Lind figurehead research followed multiple, often crisscrossing paths, requiring “reading between the lines” to understand the real story. The account offered is what I was able to “excavate,” like an archeologist, from the mound of “dusty” references.
The Mariners’ Museum collections include more than 32,000 split between documents and three-dimensional artifacts. Mariners’ Museum Part 2 provides a summary snapshot of what to expect in the museum.
Based on a recent visit, Mariners’ Museum Part 2 provides a summary snapshot of what to expect in the museum.