For the first time, the Hatteras Museum on track for state funding

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The Museum of the Atlantic Cemetery at 59200 Museum Drive, Hatteras, is the only state museum in North Carolina without permanent exhibits. Photo: Friends of the Atlantic Museum Cemetery

Thirty years ago, the Atlantic Museum Cemetery was officially designated a non-profit educational organization. This was three years after the Maritime Museum at the end of Hatteras Island was authorized by Congress, and three years before Congress provided funds for construction. But somehow, 13 years after the facility was transferred to the state, the money to display its unique artifacts was never provided.

“This is the only state facility for which the exhibits were not funded,” said Danny Couch, chairman of the board of directors of the nonprofit Friends of the Graveyard of Atlantic Museum, the supporting branch of the museum. This means that the Atlantic Museum cemetery, is the only museum in North Carolina without a permanent exhibit.

This year could be different. For the first time, an appropriation of $ 4.2 million to implement the state-approved exhibition plan for the museum has been included in both the of the governor and the state of the Senate proposed budgets.

“I hope we will get the support of the House,” said Joseph Schwarzer, executive director of the museum, who has been at the helm since 1995. “It’s been a long time.”

In what could be a good year for the state’s maritime museums, another bill, Bill 87 House, which would provide $ 3 million for a site plan for a new maritime museum at Gallants Channel in Beaufort, is also in the governor’s and Senate’s budgets.

Couch said state representative Bobby Hanig, R-Dare, emailed Dare commissioners on June 23 stating that the chair of the state House appropriation committee has given a response “Favorable” to the inclusion of museum exhibition funds in the House bill.

Hanig did not respond to a message left on his cell phone asking for invoice information.

Jerri Sutton, president of the Beaufort Maritime Heritage Foundation, is convinced that the measure will go through a conference.

“We think we are on the right track for a joint bill, and we will go to the governor for his signature,” she said.

Schwarzer, who was appointed director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums in 2012 while retaining his role at Hatteras, said he wholeheartedly supported a new facility in Beaufort, which he said has grown too large for his current location in downtown. But the Hatteras Museum, he added, has a deep coastal Outer Banks history to tell with its collection of artifacts.

“It’s really amazing,” he said. ” It has to be done. “

About 2,000 or more ships representing 400 years of maritime history are believed to have been wrecked off the coast of North Carolina, most along the Outer Banks. It is often described as the largest and most important concentration of submerged cultural resources in the Western Hemisphere.

The name “Cemetery of the Atlantic” refers to part of the coastal trade route off Cape Hatteras that required ships to sail around the treacherous Diamond Shoals, feared for its shallow, shifting sandbars that destroyed the hulls. and forced ships to move closer to shore, making them more vulnerable to attack.

“These (were) important shipping lanes,” said Couch, a member of the Dare County Council of Commissioners and native of Hatteras Island. “They took evasive maneuvers, trying to make him the hardest target possible. You wanted to get past the Outer Banks as quickly as possible.

There are four submarines sunk off the shores of the Outer Banks, where the Battle of the Atlantic raged at the start of World II, at a hefty price tag.

“Submarines were the ultimate stealth weapon,” Coach said. For a while, German submarines sank an average of one ship a day – 180 ships in the first six months of the war, Couch said, because the United States had no response for the submarines. .

Storms have also been a major factor in the countless shipwrecks spanning hundreds of years buried on beaches or in the sound and ocean waters off the coast. Thanks to its proximity to the shipping lanes and its exposed position in the Atlantic, as well as the rich fishing waters of the Gulf Stream, the Outer Banks are a cultural gold mine of maritime history: Native American, Black American, American Colonial, Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Age of Piracy, United States Rescue Service.

The first transmission of the stricken Titanic was received in Hatteras, as was the transmission of the first musical note. The first English child was born on the Outer Banks and Blackbeard, the infamous pirate, was killed on the Outer Banks.

Couch said he had been involved with the project virtually from the start in 1986, when the villagers of Hatteras first proposed having a museum to house artefacts recovered from the Civil War-proof Monitor, so recently discovered. But the state of Virginia was able to build its large Monitor Museum first, with the promise of sharing artifacts with a Hatteras Museum when it was built.

Initially, costs for the $ 7 million, 19,000 square foot Hatteras Museum were provided by project partners, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, which owns the 7-acre site across from the docks. state ferries to the southwest tip of the village. The museum has been open since 2003, with temporary exhibitions.

Initially, NOAA provided $ 600,000 for the design of an exhibit, but to date funds for the final work of the exhibit have failed for a variety of reasons, including unexpected events that have drained the budgets of the ‘State. Costs for the final design of the exhibit started at around $ 2.5million, then at $ 2.8million, then at around $ 3million, and they’ve grown steadily over the frustrating years without getting funds to complete the museum.

The final design for the exhibit was approved earlier this year and is in the state’s construction office, ready for use as soon as funds become available, Couch said.

Despite its limited exhibits, the architectural design of the ship-shaped museum is impressive and the exhibits available are attractive. In fact, the museum is only growing in popularity, attracting around 90,000 visitors a year, around 23,000 followers on Facebook, and more on other online sites, including its website.

Since 2008, the museum’s non-profit group of friends have provided $ 834,791 for maintenance and repair of facilities, exhibits, collections, acquisitions, and conservation and education programs, according to the museum. .

Hundreds of artifacts, many of which were salvaged from wrecks or donated by locals, are safely stored in an air-conditioned warehouse at the rear of the museum, including donations of 55 rare coins, two of which date back at the time of Ptolemy IV around 221 BC. on the beaches of Hatteras by a dedicated beachcomber; artifacts recovered from the U-85 by diver Jim Bunch; and an intact windlass found after Hurricane Irene at Rodanthe, near where the Priscilla was reportedly wrecked in 1894. Artifacts are also kept at National Park Service facilities on Roanoke Island and Florida.

Many Islanders – descendants of shipwreck survivors for generations, members of the Coast Guard, fishing families or the United States rescue service, or just people who found a piece of lighthouse lens when they were teenagers – have pledged to donate their hidden memorabilia or artifacts to the museum once the exhibit plan is complete, Couch said.

The museum is also planning to create an exhibit centered on the history of the Carroll A. Deering, better known as the famous ‘ghost ship’, which was a five-masted schooner that ran aground in 1921 off Cape Hatteras. . No sign of the crew was ever found.

Once installed, the exhibit is designed to allow the artifacts to help tell the human story of the Outer Banks’ unusually rich relationship with the sea, Couch said. Whether heartwarming or heartbreaking, they are all dramatic, and all worth telling – and knowing.

“It’s the pride of the state,” Couch said. “It is just a pride to understand our importance in maritime history. This is the key to North Carolina making its history known.

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