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USS Monitor lab at Newport News museum to reopen

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Mariners' Museum reopened its giant USS Monitor conservation lab this week after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which administers the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary — agreed to provide a one-year funding allocation of $200,000.

The industrial-sized complex — which houses the historic gun turret of the famous Civil War ironclad as well as more than 80 tons of other artifacts recovered from its Cape Hatteras, N.C., wreck — shut down Jan. 9 after several years of dramatically diminished federal funding.

Conservators began bringing it back to life this week after months of focusing on smaller artifacts in a small section of the lab that remained open.

"The lights are on. The Web cams are on. We're peeling back the tarps on the treatment tanks," USS Monitor Center Director David Krop said.

"We have a lot of artifacts here that need attention. So it's great to be able to get back to work and move the project forward."

The January shutdown came despite the bipartisan efforts of the Virginia congressional delegation, which called on NOAA Director Kathryn D. Sullivan late in 2013 to develop a plan for "completing the preservation of these nationally significant artifacts."

"While we appreciate the funding constraints that NOAA and other agencies face in these tight budget times, these are federally owned National Marine Sanctuary resources," a letter from the group stated.

"It is important that this tangible history not be left to decay due to lack of funds."

Following the closing, several members of the Mariners' staff met with NOAA officials and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Virginia Beach) at the museum in late March to explore the question of funding and the necessity of generating other sources of support for the beleaguered project.

The group also sought ways to renew the conservation agreement between the museum and NOAA's sanctuaries program, which expired Dec. 31 and led to the shutdown.

Despite providing more than $13 million for the construction of the Monitor Center and the conservation project in past years, NOAA can not guarantee annual funding, said Monitor Sanctuary Superintendent David Alberg, who attended the meeting with sanctuaries chief Dan Basta and Maritime Heritage Program Director James P. Delgado.

The agency's ability to support the project since 2010 also has been severely affected by a repeated series of federal budgets that failed to win approval from Congress, he said.

Complicating the issue still more were the unknown costs of the conservation project when it geared up in 2002 after the recovery of the Monitor's famous turret.

"No one had a real grasp of what it would cost. It was uncharted territory," Alberg said.

"And now that we do know, the question that remains is how all of us are going to work together to close the gap. This has always been a private-public partnership — and all of us need to contribute to that effort."

With more than 200 tons of large, fragile and often complex artifacts, the Monitor project ranks as the largest marine metals conservation effort in the world, Krop said.

But in recent years it has operated with less funding than South Carolina conservators have received for the preservation of the much smaller, 7.5-ton Confederate submarine CSS Hunley.

"Nobody has ever tried to do anything on this sort of scale before," Krop said, ticking off a list of massive objects that includes a 120-ton turret, a 20-ton steam engine and two 7 1/2- ton Dahlgren cannons as well as a 7,500-pound skeg and two 3,000-pound gun carriages.

"And without some sort of much more stable funding, it's going to be impossible for us to move the project forward. These things are just too big and in some cases too complex."

Still, both the museum and NOAA agreed in March that an annual budget of about $750,000 and a time line of 20 years provide reasonable targets for the project to go forward.

That's considerably more than the $450,000 budget spent by the lab over the past year — when the sanctuaries program provided only $50,000 through its foundation — and leaves open the question of where to find the remaining funds.

In addition to potential but not guaranteed funding from NOAA, the agency is now working with its foundation to develop a new fund-raising initiative for the project, Alberg said.

It's also coordinating with Rigell and other Virginia congressmen to find other sources of support, including such federal agencies as the Navy.

"We're under a lot of budgetary pressure — and NOAA is certainly stressed. But the challenge for all of us now is to work together and circle the wagons around these amazing artifacts," Rigell said.

"The Monitor is an important part of our heritage. It's a national treasure. But these artifacts are not stable. And they're certainly worthy and deserving of preservation."
 

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