102 years ago a sea battle took place that marked the beginning of modern naval warfare. Taking place in Hampton Roads near Norfolk, Virginia, the battle between the ironclad warships USS Monitor and CSS Virginia heralded a new era: an era during which warships were made of steel and propulsion came from steam.

The Stevenson Public History Program recently visited the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, the home of the salvaged USS Monitor. An extensive collection of artifacts is displayed through the exhibits in the museum that deal with the development of ironclads, the history of the two ships, a detailed account of the sea battle, as well as the raising of the USS Monitor.

What’s absolutely wonderful about this museum is the multiple opportunities it provides for visitors to engage with the subject. Even going to the bathroom is an opportunity to learn about life at sea. In the mens room one is greeted with a wall poster devoted to explaining how sailors historically cared for their bodily functions while at sea.

A visit to the “head” becomes a personalized learning opportunity:

Using every opportunity to educate the public.

One exhibit displays a recreated interior of the USS Monitor’s turret interior as it appeared when it was raised.

Rusted, dirty, and encased in underwater sealife, the mock turret provides an indication of that which was once reality. Nearby, a recreation of the turret as it originally looked helps the visitor envision the interior of the turret and the purpose of the vessel.

Recreation of the turret as raised from the sea floor. Recreation of that same turret as it would have looked at the time.

After taking an hour to go through that part of the museum concerned with the USS Monitor-– we could easily have spent two hours– we opted to view the 43-minute movie “D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944” by Pascal Vuong. Narrated by Tom Brokaw, the film makes use of colorized documentary photos, CGI, battle recreations, and standard film techniques to deliver the story of the D-Day invasion(s) of Normandy in 1944. Rarely impressed by 3D films, I can tell you that this one works. Seeing historically significant photos rendered as colorized 3D images is amazing as is the CGI -based pop-up book explaining the flow of the battle as well as some of the key inanimate heroes of that battle.

If you have the opportunity to swing hy the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, please do so. On our visit we barely scratched the surface of what is available at that venue. Having said that, the part that we saw was impressive. Plan the better part of a day to see the museum or a number of shorter visits.