Mariners’ Museum and Park, a longstanding Newport News icon, opened its doors in 1930. The opening is credited to Archer Huntington, who owned Newport News Shipbuilding, and Homer Ferguson, then president of Newport News Shipbuilding. Huntington, a philanthropist and scholar, was the son of Collis P. Huntington, an American industrialist and railway magnate who developed Newport News Shipbuilding. The pair founded the museum at its current location and hired shipyard workers to build and staff its early operations during the Great Depression.
“We view ourselves, first and foremost, as a community resource. Our 1930 charter says that we exist ‘to promote the public welfare,’” says museum and park president and CEO Howard Hoege. “We have worked hard over the past half decade to dramatically expand access by permanently adopting a $1 museum admission policy and by providing free online digital content and free educational enrichment programs to our region’s public schools. The museum’s park and Noland Trail have always been free and open to the public.”
Hoege says the museum offers something for everyone. “Our guests can feed their whole selves here. There’s physical wellness exercising in the park, spiritual and emotional wellness in the peace and beauty of nature and intellectual and mental wellness engaging with museum stories. Our mission is to connect people to the world’s waters because that is how we are connected to one another. Our shared connection to the water transcends race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomics and all the ways that we are sometimes made to feel different from one another.”
There is so much to see in the museum. Says Hoege, “Our guests tell us they have several favorite exhibits. First, the USS Monitor Center tells the story of the Monitor’s crew. There is also the Batten Conservation Complex (BCC), home to the world’s largest conservation project of its type: the conservation of more than 200 tons of artifacts recovered from the shipwreck of the Monitor. The BCC, itself, is the largest and most advanced conservation lab of any maritime museum in the world. There is also America’s Cup-winning AC72 catamaran hanging above visitors’ heads in our Speed and Innovation Gallery and the International Small Craft Center features actual working boats representing cultures from around the world . The crown jewel is the miniature ships collection built by August Crabtree.”
Those looking to spend some time in the fresh air are also in luck. “In the Mariners’ Park, the five-mile Noland Trail provides guests with access to a picturesque forest, breathtaking views of the Mariners’ lake and occasional and unexpected encounters with wildlife, from birds to deer to turtles. Sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington’s amazing lions and Conquering the Wild statue make the Lions Bridge one of the Peninsula’s truly iconic spots.
Hoege’s personal favorite artifact is the Monitor’s red signal lantern and what it represents. Months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras. “The crew lit the red signal lantern as a last-ditch effort to call for help, and the red signal lantern was the last thing anyone saw of the Monitor that fateful night. Many sailors did not survive the sinking,” Hoege says. “Secondly, the lantern is a symbol of and a testament to the world-class expertise and skill of our conservation team. They have, with the help of others, built something in the Batten Conservation Complex that you can’t see anywhere else in the world.”
Mariners’ Museum hosts a wide range of events throughout the year. “The ‘Mariners’ Sips ’n Trips’ is a super-engaging wine and food event in our galleries,” Hoege says. “During the event, team members pull art and artifacts not typically on display in our galleries and engage guests with the amazing stories behind the collection. Our annual Fall Festival combines craft beer, a great line up of food trucks, live music and tons of family-friendly outdoor activities in the park.”
Hoege finds many enjoyable aspects about his job, noting one certain memory. “I personally stood in our galleries once with a 94-year-old World War II veteran who served in the same Army unit that I later served with in Iraq,” Hoege says. “He was showing me a model in our collection of the actual ship that carried him to Europe in World War II and telling me the story of the voyage. I get emotional even now, just thinking about it.”
The Mariners’ team is cognizant about giving back to the community. Education programs are provided for Title 1 schools which might not otherwise get the opportunity to learn about their exhibits and history. “I really believe if you put good out in the world, it comes back to you. We’re not perfect, but our team has worked very hard to throw the doors open and show love and kindness to everyone who visits,” Hoege says. “Our community has returned that to us tenfold, a hundredfold.”
So what does the future hold for the museum and park? Hoege and his team have already begun planning and preparing for 2030, the year in which they will enter their second century. “We are investing as heavily today as we ever have in the conservation of our museum collection of art, archives and artifacts and our ‘living’ collection of trees, water and wildlife,” Hoege says. “Our goal is to be a national model for conservation and stewardship.”
While there’s plenty to do at the museum and park, Hoege finds some personal time, too. “My wife Cinda and I are officially empty nesters this year, and we have built a long list of places to travel. We love spending time with and traveling with our adult kids and look forward to many, many years of building memories,” Hoege says.
TO THE POINT:
Mariners’ Museum and Park
Address: 100 Museum Dr., Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Howard Hoege, president and CEO