Tuesday, December 4, 2018

CSS Georgia: Five years after the recovery of thousands of ironclad artifacts began in the Savannah River, no museum has committed to putting any on display

Uniform belt buckle recovered a few years ago (USACE)

On a summer day in 2017, representatives from museums across the South took a short boat ride to a barge not far from downtown Savannah, Ga. There, they got a first-hand look at artifacts and casemate belonging to the CSS Georgia, an ironclad floating battery on the Savannah River that kept any Union marauders away during the Civil War.

The scattered remains of the scuttled Confederate ship had been moved by the US Army Corps of Engineers as part of a massive harbor-deepening project. What might be called the modern effort to salvage the ironclad began with the symbolic raising of a piece of casemate -- protective armor made up of railroad track iron -- in November 2013.

The US Navy -- which essentially owns the vessel -- was encouraging these museums to “obtain a vision” on how they might display cannons, armor, a propeller and countless other items once they had undergone conservation.

It’s been more than 16 months since that visit, and no loan agreement has been reached with any of the institutions, which must weigh the costs of building or maintaining a structure that can securely hold the items and safeguard their condition. While conservation continues in Texas, the artifacts, at least for now, will remain out of the public view. 

The Picket recently contacted the Naval History and Heritage Command for an update on the endeavor. The emailed questions were answered by Shanna Daniel, a conservator with the command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch Conservation Lab.

Dahlgren gun in 2015 (USACE)
Q. What is the status of conservation of CSS Georgia artifacts, from Naval History and Heritage Command's perspective?
Conservation is one of the most important elements of underwater archaeology as artifacts recovered from underwater require special care and can vary in condition, depending on the environments from which they're recovered. The artifacts’ material makeup, such as wood, iron, brass, ceramic, are also important considerations in the conversation process. Thus, conservation takes time to ensure overall stability of artifacts. That said, conservation continues with artifacts recovered from CSS Georgia at Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) to ensure long-term stability for curation and display.

Q. Are all items still being held at Texas A&M, or are some in new locations, i.e. US Navy facilities? Are any currently on display, or scheduled for display?
A. Many of the CSS Georgia artifacts are currently undergoing conservation treatment at Texas A&M University CRL but some have completed the treatment process and will be shipped to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of next year for curation.

Q. Has any decision been made on the disposition/display of the artifacts -- all or any portion? If so, what are the details?
A. As CSS Georgia artifacts finish conservation at Texas A&M CRL, they will be shipped to NHHC for curation and available through the NHHC Archaeological Loan Program to institutions or museums that meet the loan requirements. They'll also be made available as needed to researchers interested in viewing the collection. No official request has been made by a potential institution for a loan of CSS Georgia artifacts.

Q. What is the command's current view/goal for display of the artifacts?

A. One of NHHC's mission objectives is to share the Navy's history and heritage. In the case of archaeological artifacts, we accomplish our mission by making it possible for eligible and qualified organizations to borrow and exhibit artifacts for public display. Placing the CSS Georgia collection at a suitable location that meets the loan requirements to display and curate the artifacts would meet that objective, and provide the public a unique look into the naval history of the United States, as well as American naval ship design and employment. This collection tells an important story from our history that, until recently, was lost in the waters of the Savannah River for more than 150 years.

A portion of the armor casemate in 2017 (Picket photo)

Q. Is the command in active communications with any institutions? 
A. We did receive initial interest from various museums about the collection, but they have not corresponded with us in some time. As mentioned before, we regard our archaeological artifact loan program as one of our most important tools for sharing America's rich naval history and heritage with the public and are happy to discuss the program with qualified institutions.

Q. If so, are you at liberty to name them?
It would be inappropriate to discuss an artifact loan during the predecisional phase (Click here for a list of institutions that were invited to see the artifacts in 2017).

Q. Pending any loan agreement, would the Navy likely display any artifacts on its own, or does the command believe they will stay in storage until any agreement?
A. There are no internal Navy plans to display the collection at this time. However, artifacts from NHHC's collection are frequently used by our network of 10 official Navy museums in their exhibits. For example, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy recently opened an exhibit featuring artifacts recovered from the wreck of World War I cruiser USS San Diego (ACR 6).

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