January 10, 2013

Graveyard museum starts over
with new exhibit designer


The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, located near the ferry docks in Hatteras village, is back on board with an exhibit designer, after the previous firm bailed shortly into the project.

But it’s a minor detour off course in the museum’s troubled 27-year voyage.

 “It’s a frustration,” said executive director Joseph Schwarzer.  “It was a delay. It wasn’t really a setback. As it turns out, I think the design firm we have now will be even better.”

Richmond-based Riggs Ward, selected in early December, is expected to start working on the exhibit and program plan in mid-February. Schwarzer said that the design work should be completed in six to 12 months.

The former contractor, Boston-based Christopher Chadborne & Associates -- which had started work about 1 years earlier -- informed the museum months ago that it was no longer interested in doing business.

“They dissolved it,” the director said about the company. “They simply ceased to exist.”

One of the last jobs Chadborne completed was at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Schwarzer, who is also director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, said that the firm was paid about $6,000 for initial work, but otherwise the museum’s biggest loss was time.

When the exhibit design is finished, the museum will need about $2.3 million for exhibit fabrication and installation, a separate contract that will take an additional 12 to 18 months to complete. Funds are currently being sought from public and private sources, Schwarzer said.

Local projects that Riggs Ward has designed include the 6,000-square-foot exhibit “Life by Water’s Rhythms” and an interactive exhibit on sport fishing at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla. The firm also collaborated in design of 1,500 square feet of exhibits at Merchants Millpond State Park and will be designing exhibit improvements at Roanoke Island Festival Park.

Brent Ward, a principal in the firm, said that he and his partner, Bob Riggs, are looking forward to working on the Graveyard museum project.

“I think it’s an exceptional story and it’s an exceptional location,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think we’ll have an amazing number of stories to tell.”

The genesis of the museum goes back to 1986, shortly after the Monitor wreck was discovered off Cape Hatteras. The famous Civil War ironclad had sunk in 1862 during a New Year’s Eve storm.  Village residents suggested that a shipwreck museum should be built in Hatteras to house the Monitor artifacts. Over time, the museum concept expanded to memorialize and interpret the 400-year maritime history of the Outer Banks, where thousands of ships were victims of pirates, storms, and wars.

But it wasn’t until 1999, after painfully slow fundraising and drastic expansion of the plans, that ground was broken for the museum ---- nearly two years after the originally targeted opening date.  Back then, the project was estimated at $4.5 million.  Today, the building costs alone total about $7 million and funds to install the exhibits are still lacking.

By 2003, the exterior was done, and the partially completed interior opened for visitors.

The museum quickly became a hit, despite the sparsity of permanent displays. 

“We have a very high visitation,” Schwarzer said.  “It’s been absolutely outstanding. We go up every year.”

In 2011, he said, about 72,000 people visited; in 2012, there were about 80,000 visitors.  Since the museum is not complete, there is no admittance fee, but a jar is located at the entrance for donations.

Officially transferred to the state in 2007, the museum is now joined with the two other maritime museums on the coast, but maintains its original partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service.

NOAA has provided about $600,000 for the exhibit design work. The design fee is expected to be about $568,000, said Mark Cooney, director of capital projects for the state Department of Cultural Resources.

“We currently do not have any funding to build the exhibits,” Cooney said.

Hundreds of artifacts are stored in the museum’s climate-controlled storage, including numerous items on loan from the National Park Service, the owner of the seven-acre site the museum sits on at the end of Hatteras Island.

Doug Stover, the park’s Outer Banks Group historian, said that most of the artifacts had been gathered from local residents in the 1950s and were stored at the NPS archaeological facility in Florida.  All of the items relate to the U.S. Life-Saving service, storms, shipwreck salvage or other pertinent themes the museum will be interpreting.

Stover said that since the NPS has a partnership with the museum, the loan will be for 10 years and will likely be readily renewed.

“We have some neat stuff that we’ll put on display,” he said, including a number of centuries-old Spanish coins and olive jars.

 One particularly interesting find Stover and a colleague came upon on Ocracoke Island after Hurricane Isabel in 2003 is a small piece of wood from a shipwreck that had what was determined later to be an 18th-century bottle jammed in it.  

The bottle’s cork was gone, and it was filled with sand. As the bottle was turned over to dump out the sand, Stover said, dozens of raw uncut South African diamonds tumbled onto the beach.

“The ship probably sank,” Stover said. “We never determined what that wreck was.”

The museum is open to the public from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information on the museum, visiting, and Hatteras maritime history, go to http://www.graveyardoftheatlantic.com/.
comments powered by Disqus