Newport News Mariners Museum

I visited this museum in April, 2003. The Mariner's Museum is world-class. On a par with the Smithsonian for its quality,and I believe superior in terms of its display of ship models. My guess is that the museum is very well funded by generous and rich donors. There is an entrance fee of $7 or you can buy a 1-year pass for $14 that allows unlimited access.

The museum covers a wide range of subjects with a large number of high-quality models. One section of the museum focuses on the maritime history of the Chesapeake Bay, starting with indian-built dugout canoes, working up through the colonial period, and on into 20th-century uses. Among the models there was a wonderful one of Mediator, a colonial-era armed sloop, very similar to Model Shipway's Armed Virginia Sloop, which built in 2003. (In fact, the AVS was based in part on Mediator.) There were several full-sized Bay craft, including a deadrise workboat. I've included a picture of the bow of that boat, showing the unique construction of such hard-chined craft. Chesapeake Bay skipjacks are constructed in a similar way although the deadrise in a skipjack is much less extreme.

Another section focuses on the development of the US Navy from its inception in the Colonial period up through modern-day Trident submarines. A third section covers more general maritime history with a number of very nice models ranging from Dutch East Indiamen (Prins Willem, 1651), to Cris Craft pleasure boats (including 3 or 4 full-size Cris Crafts), to ocean liners along with a few tugs and fireboats. There are also some sections that feature changing exhibits. During my visit, one such section contained a large gallery of very fine marine paintings.

The museum is also famous for its ongoing conservation of the Civil War ironclad, Monitor. As you might imagine, there are a number of exhibits about the Monitor and other such vessels used during the war. In addition, the recently raised turret and parts of the engine are in chemical treatment tanks in the courtyard of the museum. Visitors are allowed to look into the tanks, although the state of many of the items makes it hard to distinguish what they really are. Since I don't have a great interest in the Civil War, I was less fascinated by these exhibits than others might be.

One surprise for me was a gallery of beautifully done models called the Crabtree Collection. It contains about 16 models, most in the Admiralty style, and nearly all featuring beautiful carvings. They are the work of one man, Mr. Crabtree, who took up the hobby in the 1940s. It was purely and obviously a labor of love for him and his work deserves its prominent place in the museum. I've included several pictures of his models. Unfortunately, the lighting in that room is more conducive to fine sculpture than to ship models. The room is unlit but each model is lit by strong, overhead, pin-point lamps. Very dramatic but difficult to see.

The one exhibit that I was most interested in seeing at the museum was the Harold Hahn diorama of a Colonial shipyard. When I entered the museum, I asked the ticket seller where I might find the work and she had never even heard of it! Nor, in fact, had the first docent I asked. I expected to find it in the Chesapeake Bay exhibit, but it was not there. I finally found it in the section that covered a wide range of somewhat disparate subjects. Strangely, it was in an out-of-the-way wall niche, behind glass, and unlighted. I suspect few visitors would even give it a second glance. It seems a shame that such an outstanding work is so poorly displayed. Still, as you'll see, I was able to take photos of the diorama and it fully lived up to my high expectations. It is a true work of art - much more than just a couple of ship models. The one thing that surprised me was the scale, which is 1/8" = 1'. I had expected it to be 1/4" scale and I was quite surprised at how small it actually is. Altogether, it's probably less than 4 feet wide. The scale, however, makes the work even more remarkable in my eyes.

Finally, you'll find a picture of the ship modeler's shop at the museum. The shop is located just outside the Crabtree collection. Unfortunately, there was no ship modeler in attendance on the day of my visit. I understand that he comes only on Thursdays. It's clear that the museum believes it's an important exhibit (or at perhaps some wealthy donor does). It's a very nice facility in a prime location. There were no power tools (or any other tools, for that matter) visible in the shop, so it's not clear what the modeler may actually work on when he's there. There were several completed models that I recognized as having been built from kits.

I guess that's about it for the report. Well worth a trip down there for me (It's about 135 miles from where I'm living now). Also, well worth a trip for any of you who happen to be near the area at some time in the future. I might also mention they have a nice gift shop. They carry a few kits - mostly the simple Midwest kits. But they REALLY marked up the price - one that sells for about $30 most places was $60 there. Let the buyer beware!

On to the pictures =>