On Museums, Naval and Capitol

Before we get to the reviews of the new Capitol Visitor Center, a few positive word about the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va.: What a great museum! Much larger and comprehensive than one would anticipate from its being just a bit off the beaten path, at least as far as surface transportation goes.

The museum is home to an excellent and voluminous exhibition of the history of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly Merrimack), the two ships that participated in the first battle between ironclads, the March 1862 encounter off Hampton Roads. Included is extensive detail about the engineering involved in both ships, and one learns that the Monitor was designed by the great Swedish-American John Ericsson. Quite a life of accomplishments he had.

In 1987, NOAA designated the museum as the custodian of the artifacts and archives of the USS Monitor Center opened in March 2007. You can see the room where preservation of the Monitor’s turret and other artifacts is now under way, learn about the discovery and rescue of the sunken ship from the waters off North Carolina, and walk the deck of a Monitor replica. (Thanks to Northrup Grumman.)

The museum hosts many other fascinating collections and exhibits, and manufacturers and engineers will find much to enjoy, including this just-opened exhibit, “Building Better Ships,” which depicts the Newport News shipyards in the 1930s. Having read all the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin novels, it was also a great pleasure (and surprise) to see the excellent exhibition dedicated to Admiral Horatio Nelson. (Paltry web description, though.)

So what a find.

As for the Capitol Visitor Center, the Washington Post had a fine piece of architectural criticism Tuesday, “The Capitol Addition That Takes Too Much Away,” by Philip Kennicott. He remarks on the assault on the landscaping by Frederick Olmstead and observes,

[Unless] you’re lucky enough to break out of the well-designed visitor holding tanks, your experience of the Capitol will be almost indistinguishable from a trip to the Newseum, Mount Vernon or many other of our increasingly homogenized historical sites. The Rolodex of contractors for these kinds of facilities has grown far too small. Ralph Appelbaum Associates has designed the exhibitions — “they’re considered the rock stars of the museum world,” said Visitor Center spokesman Tom Fontana — which includes interactive touch screens and a “Wall of Aspirations,” by now a familiar and kitschy tic from this New York-based firm, which also did similar exhibitions for the Newseum.

So, again, just a nice piece of architecture criticism.

Meanwhile, despite its problems, the Post’s perceptive columnist Marc Fisher opines,

But as a station on the Washington tourist circuit, as a museum of American civics, and as a demonstration of how to blend education and entertainment without insulting the intelligence of the citizenry, the Visitor Center is a smash hit — the best addition to the District’s tourism portfolio since the 1990s, which gave us the FDR Memorial and the Holocaust museum.

The FDR Memorial? That ahistoric builderdash? It’s awful.

Finally, the Heritage Foundation detects ahistory abundant at the visitor’s center, “Morning Bell: A Capitol Travesty.”

Like far too many legislative proposals that pass through its chambers, Congress could not help but add its own priorities. Even though not included in the original design, the structure now features new offices for lawmakers, a theater, media studios and even a tunnel to the Library of Congress. This all-too-familiar runaway Washington spending is not even the worst part of the final product. That honor goes to the violence the center’s “educational” exhibits do to the Constitution.

You know what’s a good museum, true to the Constitution? The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News. Although it’s the USS Constitution you learn about.

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