Conservators at The Mariners' Museum were preparing to shut down a 5,000-square-foot treatment lab and stop work on the historic gun turret of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor Thursday following the expiration of an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Program.
The lab employs five staff members and incurred operating costs of about $500,000 in 2013, of which only about $50,000 was provided by the Sanctuary Program's private foundation after years in which the federal agency itself supported the internationally known conservation project with regular funding totaling more than $2.2 million.
"We regret having to make this decision, which is a deeply emotional one for our Monitor conservators, who consider themselves the guardians of these artifacts, and of their power to bring to life this important episode of American history," Mariners' Museum President and CEO Elliot Gruber said in a statement released Thursday morning.
"These artifacts are owned by the federal government, protected under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and managed by the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The museum is proud to partner with NOAA to conserve these artifacts, but their preservation is ultimately the responsibility of the federal government."
Designated by the federal government as the official repository for Monitor artifacts in 1987, the Mariners' ramped up its conservation efforts dramatically in the late 1990s during a series of joint Navy and NOAA archaeological expeditions that culminated in the recovery of the Monitor's landmark gun turret in 2002.
Five years later, the museum opened the USS Monitor Center — a $31 million, 64,000-square-foot expansion that included an industrial-sized wet lab designed to care for the landmark 120-ton gun turret and some 50 tons of other artifacts recovered from the Cape Hatteras wreck.
NOAA contributed some $13 million to the building project during that time, then followed up with a multi-year allocation of about $2 million for what is believed to be the largest and most complex marine metals conservation project in the world, Monitor Center curator Anna Holloway says.
But when those funds ran out about 2010, the agency's financial support not only fell dramatically — totaling less than $180,000 in 2011 — but ultimately came to a stop.
"It's not because NOAA doesn't care about these landmark artifacts. Everything recovered from the Monitor is federally owned," Holloway says.
"The problem here is that Congress hasn't made the appropriations. We haven't a budget approved in years."
Since then, the Mariners' has used its own resources to make up for the shortfall in federal funding..
But it can't afford to pay the annual costs of the massive conservation project on its own, Holloway says.
Inside the sprawling warehouse-sized lab, the museum's conservators and technicians tend more than 20 huge, mostly custom-fabricated treatment tanks, with the largest preserving the 120-ton turret in a chemical bath totaling nearly 100,000 gallons.
Thousands of other containers ranging from a few hundred gallons to a few ounces in size hold the remainder of some 1,500 artifacts and their related components — ranging from objects as large as two 8-ton Dahlgren cannons to some as small as a sailor's coat button.
In addition to a 40-ton overhead bridge crane, the lab's equipment includes a $200,000 reverse-osmosis water filtering system as well as $200,000 in digital X-ray equipment and a giant walk-in conservation freezer.
Just this week alone the conservators — who will remain employed for other museum duties — opened and mixed several tons of sodium hydroxide as they prepared thousands of gallons of solution in their treatment tanks for this Friday's shutdown.
"The reality is that we're not allowed to let these things fall apart. They're national treasures — so we won't let that happen. We're making sure everything is stable and then holding the line," Monitor Center Director David Krop says.
"But we can't do everything that needs to be done in a project like this on a shoe-string budget. This is the largest marine metals conservation project in the world — and just keeping up with all the daily and weekly pH level, salinity and clarity checks we have to make with this number of treatment tanks and containers takes up 95 percent of our time."
According to the museum, NOAA is still waiting on Congressional approval of a budget to determine what funding to make available to the project this year.
Several attempts to address the issue by phone with David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary office housed on the museum's grounds, were still waiting for a response late Thursday.
Friday's planned shutdown comes about six weeks after a Virginia Congressional delegation made up of Senators Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) as well as Representatives Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News; Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland Country; Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach; and J. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, sent a bipartisan letter to acting NOAA administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan asking the agency to develop a plan for "completing the preservation of these nationally significant artifacts."
"While we appreciate the funding constraints that NOAA and other agencies face in these tight budget times, these are federally owned National Marine Sanctuary resources," the letter states.
"It is important that this tangible history not be left to decay due to lack of funds."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.