Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In Praise of the Divine Miss M

By Joseph Judge
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Curator

The actor Will Smith, in one of his movies, donned a pair of sunglasses and told Tommy Lee Jones, “The difference between you and me is that I make this look good.”   Since 1993 one person in particular has made the Hampton Roads Naval Museum look good:  Marta Nelson Joiner.  Now, in 2016, she is leaving us for a well-deserved retirement.

This is what HRNM looked like in 1994.  The can of Coke was not Marta’s.
Marta came on board at the museum’s original home, the Pennsylvania House on the Naval Station, where she almost immediately plunged into the biggest project in our history: the relocation to Nauticus in downtown Norfolk in 1994.  Moving an entire museum required extensive and daily reviews of complicated exhibit elements, audio-visual material, security cameras and artifact transportation.  The museum opened successfully, no small thanks to Marta.

Cuba Libre (above and below) – two images of the Spanish-American War centennial exhibit.

After that, the problem is not what to say about Marta but how to stop saying things about Marta.  She designed the museum’s largest and most ambitious temporary exhibit in 1998: Cuba Libre: The Spanish-American War in the Caribbean.  Marta had to fit the new exhibit over the museum’s permanent exhibits – no small feat – and the result was informative and beautiful. 

Some of us, including Marta on the right, the day the Wisconsin opened.  The smiles are real.
Marta was also instrumental in design and planning for the second biggest project in the museum’s history: the opening of the battleship Wisconsin was an attraction in 2000.  Marta helped to plan the tour route, the location of docent stations, the development of a logo and a wide variety of shipboard interpretive signage in 2001.  When it opened, the Wisconsin was the most popular tourist attraction in the state of Virginia.  In one of the more exciting episodes of her career, the author and Marta were detained in the shipyard after working on the Wisconsin in December.  We were trying to find some coffee and get warm and ended up in the wrong place.  We celebrated our eventual release back in Norfolk.

Marta did not rest on any laurels, then or later.  Highlights of her illustrious work include the following: 

  • Design and fabrication of the Wisconsin’s ship’s silver exhibit.  This sensitive assignment included innovation with security cameras and lighting. 
  • Design of an exhibit for a “Bully the Moose” exhibit aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt.  The exhibit, featuring a real moose head and information about the 26th president, required relocation while the TR was in the yard for refueling. Mrs. Joiner travelled to the ship on the stressful day after 9/11 to manage the project.
  • Design of a new temporary exhibit gallery - the “Forecastle Gallery,” a shared space with Nauticus.  Mrs. Joiner pushed for creation of a temporary exhibit space (the first in the building). 

  • Installation of a major permanent exhibit that highlighted the development of the Naval Station and the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.  1907: The Jamestown Exposition and the Launching of the New Steel Navy is a beautiful and insightful contribution to the history of the region and the history of the city of Norfolk.  It was also an important contributor to “Sail Virginia,” Norfolk’s contribution to the Jamestown 2007 commemorative events.   
  • In 2011 Marta was the museum’s point person for remaking shipboard exhibits aboard USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), dedicated to Admiral Arleigh Burke.  Mrs. Joiner designed the new exhibits and oversaw their fabrication and installation.  The exhibit opened on the 20th anniversary of the ship’s original commissioning, 4 July 2011.

  • In 2014, she was an integral part of the design team working  on “Stewards of the Sea,” an exhibit highlighting the Navy’s environmental efforts.  This high-tech, hands-on exhibit represents an important step forward for Navy exhibits and Nauticus.  It provides immersive scenarios for the visitor to learn about the Navy’s environmental measures while at sea, to include its protective measures with the marine life it encounters.

I have not even mentioned exhibits at the Navy Tour & Information Center, the MAC Terminal, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Fort Story, Little Creek, Commander Navy Region Mid-Atlantic or numerous others.

She completely redesigned the museum’s signature publication, The Daybook, twice, most recently in 2015.  And in her spare time she has corralled problems with the museum’s IT systems, security cameras, telephones, all while solving graphic design problems that crossed her desk each day.  And I need it by Tuesday.

Accreditation is the gold standard of museum performance.  We obtained it in 2008, in no small part because of the professionalism of our publications and exhibits.  This hard-working woman served as the manager of an exhibit design and fabrication program that welcomed over 3,470,000 visitors to exhibits in Nauticus between 1994 and 2015; and welcomed over 2,500,000 visitors to the battleship Wisconsin during the period of Navy ownership (2000-2009).

Marta in her office  receiving some news about a broken exhibit.  The sign in the background was at first infamous, then just famous.  Note the (then) state-of-the-art Macintosh computer at the back left.

The rest and best part of the story lies in the years of laughter and tears that we enjoyed with the divine Miss M.  Some years, tears outweighed the laughter, but there is no helping that part of life, and we were always there for each other.  Bon voyage Marta, HRNM loves you.

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