'Shipwreck!' show at Farmington Museum dives deep into the past

Exhibition opening Saturday features 500 historic artifacts, 10 interactive displays

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The exhibition was put together by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a marine salvage operation.
  • A hurricane simulator featuring 75 mph winds is one of the show's highlights.
  • The exhibition also features displays of gold bars and silver coins.

FARMINGTON — Most museum exhibitions, especially those designed to travel from one institution to another, fall into one of two categories, says Jeffrey Richardson, the curator of the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

The museum staff prepares one of the  "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" displays Thursday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

The typical traveling exhibition is made up almost exclusively of artifacts or it features primarily didactic and interactive elements, he said. But the museum's "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" show that opens Saturday is very much the exception, Richardson noted.

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"This time, this exhibition falls right in the middle and mixes the two of those," he said. "It's really quite something to see."

"Shipwreck!" is the largest traveling exhibition the museum has played host to since its "Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science" show that was featured in 2014 and 2015. Richardson said the museum gallery where "Shipwreck!" is being displayed is 7,000 square feet in size, and the exhibition fills almost every square foot of that space.

"This is a huge exhibition, and we're showing all of it," he said.

Museum director Bart Wilsey takes on wind speed equal to a Category 1 hurricane Thursday in an interactive display at the "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" exhibition at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

"Shipwreck!" includes 500 historic artifacts recovered from the deep by Odyssey Marine Exploration, as well as examples of the robotic technology the company employed to retrieve the items. Additionally, there are 10 interactive displays that will provide visitors with a variety of first-hand experiences — everything from a hurricane simulator with 75 mph winds to the chance to pilot a robotic arm used to pick up treasure.

Richardson described the show as a multi-generational experience that should appeal to everyone. History buffs are likely to be wowed by the gold bars, silver coins, and fine porcelain and glass items recovered from downed ships, while younger visitors will be drawn to the interactive displays, the 250-pound sonar "fish" towed behind Odyssey ships to help locate shipwrecks and the replica of a deep-sea submersible vehicle used to explore them.

"There's really a lot to do for all different ages," he said.

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Richardson described Odyssey as one of the largest marine salvage operations in the world and said the company has been exploring shipwrecks and recovering materials from the deep for several decades. The "Shipwreck!" show originally was planned as a permanent exhibition for a museum in New Orleans, but the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 derailed those plans. Since its inception, "Shipwreck!" has been displayed in cities across the country, including New York, Boston, Detroit, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Tampa and New Orleans, and it has been viewed by more than 2 million people.

Museum director Bart Wilsey examines a full-scale replica of Zeus, an underwater robotic submarine, during a tour of the "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" exhibition Thursday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

"It's a real coup for us to be able to bring this to Farmington and the surrounding areas," Richardson said.

Much of the exhibition focuses on three shipwrecks in particular — those of the Buen Jesus Nuestra Senor de Rosario in 1622, the S.S. Republic in 1865 and the S.S. Gairsoppa in 1941.

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Odyssey recovered 110 tons of silver from the Gairsoppa approximately 300 miles southwest of Galway, Ireland, after the shipwreck's discovery in 2011. The British cargo ship was sunk by a German U-boat during World War II and came to rest 4,700 meters below the surface of the North Atlantic — more than a mile deeper than the Titanic.

But Richardson finds the story of the Republic even more compelling. The steamer was commissioned as a Union vessel in New Orleans but was commandeered by Confederate troops when the Civil War broke out. Union troops later captured the ship, and it was on its way from New York back to New Orleans in October 1865, laden with coins and supplies needed for the reconstruction effort, when it sank in a hurricane 100 miles off the Georgia coast.

"It's the biggest Civil War treasure discovery of all time," Richardson said.

The exhibition's interactive displays, especially the hurricane simulator, are likely to be crowd pleasers, Richardson knows. But he said his favorite part of the show is the artifacts — not just the gold and silver treasure, but the everyday items that provide clues about what life was like during the eras when the different ships went down.

A large coin concentration from the "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" exhibition is displayed Thursday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

"For me, as a curator and historian, that brings the story to life," he said, describing how he watched the show being unloaded from its delivery trucks last week and marveled at some of the things he saw that were recovered after they were lost for decades or even centuries under thousands of feet of seawater. "To be surrounded by these artifacts, that's what really makes this spectacular."

The exhibition remains on display through Feb. 17.


If you go

What: Opening of the "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure" exhibition

When: 8 a.m. Saturday

Where: The Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.

Admission: $7 for adults, $4 for children, free for children 2 and younger

For more information: Call 505-599-1174

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.