September 3, 2014

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
completion is pushed back again


Completion of the exhibit design for the seemingly always almost-finished Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is continuing to be pushed back, with a final plan likely another year out.

“We have revamped the plan to reflect a more engaging content,” said Joseph Schwarzer, the museum’s executive director. “I think we’ve identified the broad overall needs.”

At a meeting with the public in May 2013, the design team with Richmond-based Riggs Ward said it was expected the design package for the Hatteras museum would be ready by the end of that year.

Although the earlier estimate was unrealistically optimistic, Schwarzer said, the design work is progressing well, and still incorporates innovative approaches. Input from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state Department of Cultural Resources, and the public has also been considered in the design process.

When a comprehensive plan with illustrations and costs can be handed to would-be donors, Schwarzer said, then fundraising for the $2.4 million needed for fabrication and installation of the exhibits will begin. Once the money is nailed down, it would take about another two years or so to complete the exhibit installation.
Mark Cooney, director of the capital projects unit for the state Department of Cultural Resources, said that no funds have been provided in any state budget for the exhibit fabrication, which is considered a capital improvement. But Cultural Resources has listed the project as its second priority, behind restoration of the USS North Carolina, in its 2011-2017 capital improvement wish list.

Cooney said the state is requesting $3.2 million for the museum exhibit work, but even in the best-case scenario, the earliest it would be budgeted would be in 2015-2016.
“I think what we’re really going to have to do is tap into the private funding mechanism,” he said.

Dave Alberg, the superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor Marine Sanctuary, had told the Dare County Board of Commissioners at its Aug. 4 meeting that the funds for the museum exhibit would be provided in 2017, and that the hope was to have the permanent exhibits installed around that timeframe.  

But he conceded in a later telephone interview that budgets are mutable things.

“Obviously, no state or federal government can guarantee (future budgets),” he said. “The point is, they slated a request for the 2017 budget. But anything can happen between now and 2017.”

Alberg said that NOAA has already given the museum about $2 million toward construction of the building and another $620,000 for the exhibit design.

“We wanted to help the state as much as we could,” he said. “But we don’t have the $3 million to build the exhibits.”

Meanwhile, a concept for the way the exhibits will look is coming together.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens exhibit in the lobby will be moved to the main gallery, opening up the museum’s entry, Schwarzer said. But the lens exhibit will be still visible as visitors enter, he said, allowing them “to be able to take it all in.”

Rather than having displays arranged in traditional sequential or timeline order, Schwarzer said the gallery space will be kept visually expansive and  exhibits will be displayed in a “free-flowing” pattern.  

The design, he said, will be a “bubble plan” that divides gallery space into areas with intersecting themes and topics. For instance, one area may be devoted to storms and include displays on aids to navigation and lighthouses and lifesaving stations; another could be devoted to conflicts, and show artifacts from wars and piracy; other areas could interpret the local culture, early history and maritime commerce. Emphasis will be on the human story behind the exhibits, the tales of heroism, ingenuity, sacrifice, resilience, loss and survival.

The goal, Schwarzer said, is to give the visiting public a comprehensive view of the rich heritage and cultural history of maritime life on the coast. Changing and interactive digital screen monitors will explain the displays, allowing for exhibits to be readily updated or rotated. And NOAA will assist with various kiosks, for instance, on wave action, wind and geological stages of the barrier islands.

“It will be compact and rather intense as far as its informational content,” Schwarzer said.

A shipwreck -- described as perhaps the oldest ever found in North Carolina -- that was transported in 2010 to the museum from the site where it was discovered in Corolla will also be incorporated in the exhibit, Schwarzer said. The shipwreck, which he said had dried out when it was removed from the sand, is currently sitting on a slab on the side of the museum, he said.

The vessel is sheltered, he said, but it is deteriorating because its timbers cannot be rehydrated. A more protective shelter would cost $120,000, he said, which is not affordable.

“We’re trying,” Schwarzer said. “All you can do is elevate it and keep it as dry as possible.”

There will be a significant exhibit interpreting the Battle of the Atlantic, the bloody U-boat campaign in 1942 in which numerous vessels were sunk off the Outer Banks. There were also several German submarines sunk by U.S. airstrikes and Navy vessels off North Carolina.

Alberg said that NOAA and the museum are working with area divers to find a respectful way to allow artifacts divers had salvaged years ago from U-boats to be displayed.

“NOAA, the State of North Carolina and the German government acknowledge that the German U-boats are considered war graves and agree that in-situ preservation is the preferred policy, however artifacts that were removed from the German U-boats in the past should nonetheless be preserved and displayed in a public museum,” Alberg said in an e-mail.   "Toward that end, NOAA is consulting with Germany and the State of N.C. in regard to the conservation and curation of previously recovered artifacts with the goal of displaying these artifacts within the State’s maritime museums someday.

“NOAA and the state,” he added, “are working closely together to educate the public about the laws that protect many of the shipwrecks off coastal North Carolina.”

There is also a separate effort to find funds to create a small traveling exhibit that recognizes and documents key figures in the recreational wreck diving community in North Carolina, Alberg said.   

The German government had earlier agreed to allow the Enigma decoding machine salvaged from the U-85 off Nags Head to be displayed at the museum. Schwarzer said the museum recently received “an absolutely fantastic” donation of a U-boat handbook depicting the coasts of Norway and Ireland.  

Digitalization of the museum’s collection is underway, he said. Ideally, the public will be able to access that information both at the museum and online.

With about 2,0000 shipwrecks believed to be located in waters off the Outer Banks – likely the highest concentration in the world -- the 20,000 square-foot facility was built to interpret the dramatic 400 year maritime history of the Outer Banks.  Many of the wrecks were caused by treacherous Diamond Shoals off Hatteras, leading to the infamous nickname of Graveyard of the Atlantic.

From the time the museum was first talked about in 1986, when the remains of the famed Civil War ironclad Monitor were found off Hatteras, it’s been rough-going, even occasionally coming close to sinking.

It wasn’t until 1999 that ground was finally broken on a 7-acre site owned by the National Park Service, and – with the interior just partially-completed -- the $7 million museum opened to the public in 2003 with scaled-down exhibits.

Still the facility located across from the Hatteras ferry docks has proved to be a popular attraction, with about 80,000 visitors a year. Visitation this year is trending to equal or exceed that number.

In 2007, the museum was transferred to state ownership and joined two other North Carolina Maritime Museums on the coast, which Schwarzer also directs.

Since the museum is not finished, no entrance fee is charged, but donations have been about $30,000 a year, said Melanie Schwarzer, with the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The museum also garners about $35,000 annually in special license plate sales, she said.

Schwarzer said that the museum recently added a new exhibit on the ensign flag of the vessel Monticello, and the Civil War exhibit will be updated one more time. Updates are also planned for the recreational and commercial fishing exhibit and are being considered in the diving exhibit. 

(The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is located near the ferry docks in Hatteras village.  It is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. There is no admission fee but donations are accepted.  For more information, go to the website,

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