June 11, 2010

Shipwreck museum has some new exhibits and programs
 but completion is still way down the road


Twenty-one years since its formal inception, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum will soon be the recipient of an actual shipwreck --- an impressively historic one.  

The wreck discovered recently in Corolla, possibly as old as the 1607 Jamestown settlement, is expected to be trucked down Highway 12 to the shipwreck museum in the wee hours one night this summer.

Once it arrives at the site at the end of Hatteras village, the yet-to-be identified ship will be placed on a cement pad outside the rear of the museum where eventually the public will be able to view it.

“This is wonderful, because that’s the northern-most limit of our mission statement,” said Joseph Schwarzer, the museum’s executive director.

Schwarzer took a 4-foot section of the vessel to Greenville on May 25 to be examined by archaeological conservators, who determined that the ship, originally about 70-feet long, was made of some kind of oak.  Between the use of trunnels --- wooden nails --- and a number of mid-16th-century copper French coins, musket balls, and birdshot found nearby, the vessel could date back to the early 17th century.

 And he said the wreck is not the only exciting new acquisition for the state attraction, which memorializes and interprets the 400-year maritime history of the North Carolina coast from the Virginia border to Cape Lookout.  Schwarzer said that the facility also has recently acquired more materials from German submarines, including the main hatch from the U-85 sunk off Nags Head.

 Still, it will be years before most of the artifacts in temperature-controlled storage at the museum will be seen. Translation: the museum is years away from finally being completed.

“I hope that the permanent exhibits will be designed, fabricated and installed within the next three to four years --- that’s depending on funding,” Schwarzer said.

The design, which has been funded, is expected to start in a few weeks.

From the time Hatteras residents first proposed a shipwreck museum in 1986, not long after the Civil War ironclad Monitor was discovered 16 miles off Hatteras, funding has mostly trickled in, with an occasional cloudburst of donations or appropriations.  Originally targeted for opening in 1998, funding goals skyrocketed in 1996 when the project was doubled in size –to nearly 19,000 square feet --and cost: $4.5 million.

Back in 1997, a $3 million fund-raising campaign was launched for the museum.

Four years later Schwarzer said that the museum needed to raise “another $3 million.” 

The state agreed to take over the museum three years ago and join it with the two existing maritime museums in Beaufort and Southport, respectively. At that time, Schwarzer estimated that another $2.7 million was needed to complete the project.

This week, Schwarzer said that the Graveyard museum is still in about as much need. Now it has to raise $2.5 million required for exhibits.

 When completed, Schwarzer said, the museum will be a $10-$12 million project.

Schwarzer, who is paid an annual salary of about $72,000, credits the museum board’s Friends group with keeping the project moving forward during the recent economic stress.  In the past year, he said, the group has contributed  a total of about $35,000, including $10,000 for the concrete pad, $4,000 for the security system, and $3,000 for cleaning and construction.

“They’ve just been wonderful,” he said.

For the first time this summer, the museum will be conducting a full schedule of programming, much of it staffed by one of the 26 or so volunteers. Recently, the maritime museums have been sharing and rotating staff, Schwarzer said, which has helped prevent layoffs. Hatteras has three permanent staff, including the director, and one temporary staff member.

While the museum works on getting the exhibits ready, it has plans for numerous temporary exhibits in the recently-completed gallery, including one this summer about pirates that features life-size models of real buccaneers, pirate flags, and pirate galleons.

“It will be popular kitsch meets the real thing,” Schwarzer said. “It’ll be fun.”

Other temporary exhibit themes will be the Scenic Byways and the Monitor. Next year, the theme will be on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

But for now, Schwarzer said he has been applying for permits to move the shipwreck from Corolla to the safety of the museum, hopefully by late July. Plans are also being made to have the 40-foot by 30-foot concrete pad in place and cured long before then.

It has not yet been decided how the 400-year old wreck, the first to be exhibited at the shipwreck museum, will be preserved, Schwarzer said. Little is known about its origins, despite some wishful speculation he has heard that it could be a pirate ship.

“It’s not,” Schwarzer said. “It’s a merchant ship.”

(Catherine Kozak, a former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in the Nags Head office, is now a freelance writer for The Island Free Press and other publications.)


The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is located in Hatteras village near the Hatteras Inlet Ferry Docks.  The museum is not yet completed but there are exhibits for visitors to see on the shipwrecks and maritime heritage of the Outer Banks.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.

The Web site is http://www.graveyardoftheatlantic.com.

This summer there is a complete schedule of events on most days at the museum. Click here for the July and the August monthly schedule.

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