Hello and welcome back to “Karl’s Korner”, a historical segment written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum! This year marks Midway’s 15th Anniversary as a Museum here in San Diego, and we couldn’t be more delighted to celebrate with you. In gratitude, I will share my personal story and connection to the Midway’s beginning.
Leave me a comment below if you have any midway memories you’d like to share!
The Midway’s actual arrival in San Diego in January 2004 was the culmination for me of nearly eight years of participation and contribution, albeit in highly specialized ways, in transforming an empty retired carrier into a leading museum and attraction. I say specialized because I focused on exhibit content, and as such, was a member of the Museum Planning Committee (MPC), a group chaired by then-San Diego Convention and Visitors’ Bureau president Reint Reinders. While our other leaders devoted themselves in those years to the vital task of clearing administrative hurdles to actually get the ship here, Reint’s task was to explore the possibilities of crafting a museum experience worthy of the Midway’s reputation. We examined trends in other attractions, spoke with professionals, and hired architect John Hinkle to produce a superb deck-by-deck treatment of what a museum housed aboard the carrier would look like, provided we had the funds to carry it out.
In August 2003, the Midway was formally donated to the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, as we were known then, and our cherished exhibition notions were put to the test. The first reality was the shortage of funding. Although hopes were kept alive for robust sponsorships that would cover the costs, what funding that did arrive in late 2003 and early 2004 had to be spent on fundamentals like creating restrooms, painting decks and bulkheads, and setting up a fence around the flight deck. Just getting guests up to the flight deck and back was a show-stopper. Our new CEO, Mac McLaughlin mentioned this very problem as several of us gathered pier side at North Island after the ship arrived from Oakland. Since I had built a huge model of the Midway years before, I was aware of the hourglass narrowing of the flight deck aft, and offered that an external stairway could be built from the hangar deck directly to the flight deck without expensive and time-consuming alterations. Since custom stairways could also feature a gentler climbing angle than the existing navy ladders onboard, I borrowed a term from the sport of downhill skiing and suggested the nickname “bunny slope” be applied. The name stuck, and now any custom ladderway we build or refer to has that appellation. As sponsorship funds were still scarce, plans for an elaborate naval history exhibit had to go by the board. Therefore, made a virtue out of necessity and promoted the “ship-is-the-trip” as our thematic approach.
During our earlier research on trends at other attractions, we heard about self-guided audio touring. Other than the exotic surroundings of an aircraft carrier and perhaps a half-dozen restored aircraft, as well as our docents, we had no other method for conveying information to our visitors. We therefore auditioned a few firms, and settled on Antenna Audio from the Bay area. They provided the recording personnel, the production studios, and the players, all for no up-front fees, just a cut from the admission sales. We soon had interviews lined up, and had a tour of some thirty “stops,” as they called each tour recording, by opening day. It was a huge success, although one drawback was a shortage of players. In June, we had to pull in everyone, including Mac’s teenage daughter, to take players from people coming back from the flight deck and literally sprint back with them to other guests newly arriving on the hangar deck, just to keep up.
We had to adjust immediately to handling large crowds, and it was not much of a surprise that first summer, of course, but when the numbers resurged a week or so after school started in early September, it was a bit of a shock—we had no slow time. The Midway was a year-round primary attraction, even on rainy days, and boy was that first winter rainy! The pier used to be the interior of a warehouse, so it was not surfaced to provide rapid drainage, and we were forced to throw down pallets to provide duckboard walkways just to get to the two-window ticket booth we had then. The flight deck as well could turn into a lake and we all marveled at Midway Falls cascading off the aft corner of the flight deck during our lunch breaks. Later, after we removed the weather cover to the port jet blast deflector to test raising it for the catapult exhibit, we were treated to an interior waterfall that dropped water right behind the port steam accumulator near the Midway University entrance, and then flowed across the hangar deck where our Battle of Midway cinema viewers queue today, to drain over where number elevator is.
One other thing we learned the hard way was never to rent out the museum for whole days. Before we opened, when cash was tight, we accepted an offer from Porsche to use the ship for two days in November of 2004 for a lot of money. They wanted to film the debut of their 2005 models on the flight deck. However, by the end of June, it was obvious that the rest of the year would be just fine, but a deal was a deal. So, on those November days, we had the embarrassment of telling people lining up at the ticket booth that there would be no tours that day, but to come back later in the week. Never again. Speaking of the ticket booth, the dinky one we had that first year gave way to the larger version we have now, but the new one needed a lot of modifications, like the name of our museum. Paper plans were duly produced, showing the booth in gray with a large “41” emblazoned on the front, and tall, water-jet cut metal letters fastened to the top, spelling out “MIDWAY MUSEUM”—in black lettering. Since the design was rendered on white paper, it stood looked beautiful. Problem was, the actual letters were also finished in black, and when they were mounted on the roof, against the dark and gray background of the Midway, they disappeared! Red-faced, we rushed over to Home Depot and bought rollers, pans, masking tape, and white paint. A couple of hours later, we had the now-brighter signs belatedly mounted, standing out proudly. Fortunately, they also hide bird deposits as well. Live and learn.
The Midway Museum has come a long way from those rambunctious frontier days in 2004. Now a first-tier attraction, the museum is an asset to the San Diego community, offering a unique special-events venue with a crowded calendar, an exquisite volunteer organization, intriguing social media offerings, and a robust education program. For me, the Midway Museum was not only a heaven-sent opportunity to return to the stimulating company of talented people, but the only place to practice and develop my own education and interest in naval history. As a content developer for our exhibits, I steadily honed my craft to the point where I can now teach others in the classroom. This expression of my own traits for the benefit of others is perhaps the richest legacy of all.
Launch em’… until next time,