USS Monitor Conservation Lab to close due to funding woes

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Mariners' Museum is temporarily closing a 5,000-square-foot conservation lab that houses the historic gun turret and other large artifacts from the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor following the expiration of funding from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Program.

The lab employs five staff members and incurred operating costs of about $500,000 in 2013, of which about $50,000 was paid by the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary after years of providing regular funding for the internationally known conservation project.

"We regret having to make this decision, which is a deeply emotional one for our Monitor conservators, who consider themselves the guardians of these artifacts, and of their power to bring to life this important episode of American history," Mariners' Museum President and CEO Elliot Gruber said in a statement released Thursday morning.

"These artifacts are owned by the federal government, protected under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and managed by the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The Museum is proud to partner with NOAA to conserve these artifacts, but their preservation is ultimately the responsibility of the federal government."

Designated by the federal government as the official repository for Monitor artifacts in 1973, the Mariners' ramped up its conservation efforts dramatically in response to a series of joint Navy and NOAA expeditions that culminated in the recovery of the Monitor's landmark gun turret in 2002.

Five years later, it opened the USS Monitor Center — a $31 million, 64,000-square-foot museum expansion that included an industrial-sized lab to care for the 120-ton turret and some 50 tons of other artifacts recovered from the Cape Hatteras wreck.

Over the past several years, however, the Mariners' has used its own resources to make up for an increasing shortfall in federal funding, Gruber said.

No new money has yet been allocated by the Sanctuary Program for 2014.

But NOAA is waiting on Congress' approval of a budget to determine what funding to make available this coming year, the museum's statement said.

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