After years of displaying a hodge-podge of artifacts and exhibits at the lab where the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship is being conserved, a museum has finally been created to tell the story of the Confederate vessel H.L. Hunley.
The hand-cranked sub sank the Union blockade ship Housatonic in 1864 before the Hunley and its eight-man crew itself went to the bottom.
The Hunley was raised off the South Carolina coast 15 years ago and brought to the lab in North Charleston where it is being conserved in a large tank.
Until now, visitors could see exhibits showing bits and pieces of the Hunley story in a large room outside the conservation area. But it was a muddled story.
“It was completely disjointed. It had no rhyme or reason,” Kellen Correia, the president and executive director of Friends of the Hunley, said this week.
Since the conservation work is expected to take at least five more years, the group, working with Design Dimensions, of Raleigh, North Carolina, has now created a museum.
It uses interactive exhibits, videos and other displays to provide a clearer view of the Hunley — how and why it was built, details about its mission and the process of excavating and conserving the sub in the years since it was raised.
Visitors entering the museum first see exhibits about Charleston during the Civil War and about the construction of the Hunley in an attempt to break the Union blockade that was strangling the city.
They move on to displays about the mission itself including an area where, when an animation is played, they can follow orders to turn cranks as if they were crew members.
After viewing the submarine itself, visitors pass through exhibits describing how the sub was raised and the conservation process.
“They did a great job of encompassing the Hunley story because that’s a lot — 150 years of history,” Correia said.
She estimates that well over a half million people have toured the Hunley lab over the years. It is only open to visitors on weekends so as not to interfere with the conservation work.
“This is more interactive and there are so many stories to look at so people spend a lot more time in here than they initially did,” she added, estimating the average visitor now spends 90 minutes in the lab.
One it is conserved, the Hunley will be put on permanent display at a $40 million museum to be built nearby.