Monday, November 3, 2014

To conserve and protect: Q&A with USS Monitor Center chief about 'everybody's ship'

David Krop with conserved coat (Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

David Krop, 36, is director of the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va. The Picket recently spoke with Krop about his five-member staff's ongoing efforts to conserve remains of the USS Monitor and associated artifacts. The ironclad vessel sank Dec. 31, 1862, during a storm while it was being towed from Virginia to Union operations in North Carolina. Sixteen crew members died. Krop gives about 50 talks a year on the project. This Q&A is edited for brevity. 

Q. How did you get involved in the project and whom do you work for?

A. I started out as an intern in 2004 and attended East Carolina University. I grew up in Virginia Beach. We are museum employees in a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They operate the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Q. When was the last recovery from the wreck site (off Cape Hatteras, N.C.)?

A. NOAA archaeologists' last recovery was in 2004. The majority of what we have here was brought up from 1998 to 2002. There still is significant structure down there, but it is badly degraded. You see a massive armor belt of metal and wood bolted together. It defines the shape of the wreck. The vessel is inverted -- the hull has kind of collapsed in.

Q. How long did it take for the USS Monitor to be built?

A. Just over 100 days -- about 116. It is incredible.

USS Monitor anchor is hoisted (Image courtesy of NOAA)
Conserved anchor on display (Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

Q. What's involved in the conservation?

A. We are desalinating the artifacts. They are in a high pH solution, to prevent them from rusting. Electrolysis sends out negative charges to force out the salts.

Q. Can you give us an update on some of the larger recovered pieces?

A. The turret (which weighs about 120 tons) was recovered in 2002. There was about 9 feet of sediment. So far, the external surface has been deconcreted along with most of the roof. We will win the long-term fight. It will need about 15 more years of conservation. The two Dahlgren guns were removed from the turret in 2004. I'd say about ball park estimate of three more years. The gun carriage is completely disassembled and needs four of five more years. And the steam engine needs 20 more years.

Q. Tell me a little more about the main steam engine.

A. We have 11 different material types. There is cast iron, glass, wood, bronze, iron, rubber and other materials, including some of the original oil. We have documented the entire thing. We are now separating all of those components by material type. Brass, plumbing pieces and gauges have been removed for separate, specialized treatment. We want to know how it was built. It was capable of about 400 horsepower. You hear 6 knots or 9 knots. The Monitor was considerably faster and maneuverable than the Virginia. While the engine was finicky.... in essence it did its job. It did what it needed to do. There was this main steam engine, two ventilation engines, two steam-powered bilge pumps, a centrifugal pump, two steam engines to move the turret, donkey engines – a total of eight steam engines. It is an unbelievably complex of things running together.

Q. How did it compare to the Confederates' CSS Virginia?

A. The Virginia had a deep draft and was extremely heavy. The Confederates converted a burned-out hull to an iron vessel and they did the best they could. In the battle in Hampton Roads, both vessels had to contend with very shallow water.

Turret mosaics (exterior, interior) Click to enlarge. Courtesy Mariners' Museum

Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about the famous Monitor turret?

A. We were surprised with something. We discovered a series of Roman numerals. They are everywhere and complex. The best guess it is they were there as a reassembly guide. The turret has 192 plates, 3 feet by 9 feet is dimension. The interior is complex. There are wrought iron floor beams. It has its own floor, but the wooden components are gone. The Monitor had two 11-inch Dahlgren guns made in West Point, N.Y., in 1859. They had pendulum-shaped gun shutters.

Q. What more can you say about the conservation?

A. We are looking for treatment efficiencies by looking at modern industry. We are scaling up some treatment steps that are helping to buy us time. I can't get into details, but we are trying dry ice for certain phases of cleaning and looking at heating certain treatment solutions. We are trying to come up with ways from industry to make it accessible for our treatment here. We have talked with retired petrochemical engineers. This is the largest marine metal conservation project.

Q. This is a long-term process, right?

A. About 200 tons of material showed up in two years. For the longest time, this was triage, getting the neediest things stabilized first. The artifacts are stable when they leave the lab. We are very strict on our controls and humidity levels in the displays. Dry is ideal for a metal artifact, but to have a wool coat or wooden in the same environment would be terrible. They need moisture. It is a forever responsibility to care for these items. NOAA likes it when we loan certain items (away from the museum) and we have multiple loans out at any given time. It gets the story out to the entire audience. The big items will be displayed here. We have place holders, including a reproduction turret and a glass-plate stencil of the engine. You can walk up and touch a piece of the Monitor -- a piece of iron.

Q. Can you tell me how social media is part of the picture?

A. We initially put in huge windows for visitors to see the treatment process. We now have three live webcams and we control those settings. There is a conservation blog, a Facebook page and Twitter.

Conserved wheel aft of boilers (Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

Q. What we do we know about the USS Monitor crew members?

A. The remains of two sailors were found in the turret. We still don't know who they were even after lots of collaboration and DNA donations. It is a developing process. There's no match yet; there are five or six possible candidates. Some might think these guys were all from the Northeast. If you look at the crew's list, you see they are from England, Sweden, Wales, Germany, Ireland, Austria, Scotland, with some from the Northeast. We are talking about 10 different countries. It was the ultimate melting pot crew.

Q. Can you tell me about funding for the project? (The wet lab was closed for about five months earlier this year because of a federal funding shortfall. It reopened after receiving $200,000 from NOAA.)

A. Funding still has an unstable long-term picture. We need about $750,000 a year. Congress does not currently fund.... it becomes very tough to easily source those funds. We apply for grants and to the National Park Service. It takes a long time to do this work so we get in-kind support from businesses and university students help us.

Q. Can you look ahead to 2015?

A. We spent a lot of the past year surveying the collection, stabilizing components, a section of beams and copper pipes. We are surveying organic materials, such as wood and leather. We are now targeting small finds, including personal items, the ship bilge, the Worthington pumps. In the coming year we will drain the turret and engine tanks to recalibrate our solutions. Corrosion is being reduced and they are looking better. We want to utilize today’s science to solve these 150-year-old stabilization problems. The ship is not just the Civil War anymore. .... We want people to be part of the story. This is everybody’s ship.

Remains of bottle found in turret (Courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

Q. You said the Monitor has about 1,600 artifacts, 60 percent of which have been treated. What are your personal favorites and the most meaningful work?

A. The turret holds a special place in my heart, especially when I first started. Two fragments of glass were seen in 2010. They are pieces of a small flask made at the Baltimore Glass Works. We don't have the base of the bottle (above) but do have a beautiful image of a phoenix and the word "Resurgam" (I shall rise again). It is probably the most symbolic thing we could have found. We found the symbol of what we are doing: Taking the Monitor, lost off Atlantic Coast, and bringing new life into it. It somehow ended up in the turret. Another favorite is being a part of this project was when the two human remains were buried March 8, 2013, at Arlington National Cemetery. That is a powerful experience and a powerful message and a deserved place for those two crew members.

• Reconstructing USS Monitor sailor's coat

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