Hidden Gem: US Navy Museum

July 3, 2013

USA

I’ve been visiting Washington, D.C. on and off since 2001 and yet, it was only this year that I discovered the existence of the National Museum of the US Navy. Long time readers of Museum Diary will know how much I love my “hidden gems”, so of course it had to go on our itinerary. The museum is located on the Navy Base, down by the waterfront in the SE quadrant of the city, and chronicles the history of the U.S. Navy from the American Revolution to the present day.

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It felt a bit eerie walking across the almost deserted Navy Base, and the plain white museum building with a couple of anchors outside looked quite unassuming. But once you step inside, you can’t help but go “Wow!”.

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The displays in the large, hangar-like space mostly follow a chronological order, covering the American Revolution & French Alliance, the “Forgotten Wars of the 19th Century”, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, and the Korean War of the 1950s. Major battles during these periods are addressed, as well as tactics and technology.

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Alongside this, there are also thematic displays on navigation techniques – do you know your quadrants from your sextants? – minesweeping, amphibious operations and submarine warfare, naval aviation – complete with several aircraft suspended from the ceiling – and polar exploration. There’s also a section on the “Home Front”, and its campaigns to increase contributions to the war effort.

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As you can imagine, exhibits include plenty of canons, firearms, torpedoes and other weaponry and ammunition, alongside scale models of famous navy vessels or life size replicas e.g. of a ship’s bridge. But it’s things like the personal artefacts from the Revolutionary War or “mementos” from shot down enemy submarines, an Enigma cipher machine or an atomic bomb casing similar to the one used on Hiroshima, that make a lasting impression.

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One of the best things, however, about the museum – especially if you are visiting with children or, like me, are a big kid at heart, is that it’s so interactive. There are several interactive touch screens placed around the museum, where you can quiz yourself on Navy trivia or watch video presentations e.g. on submarine life or extracts from the popular TV show Master & Commander  appropriately being shown on a replica gun deck.

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In the recreated interior of a submarine’s operation deck, you can peer through the periscopes at what’s going on outside, or flip the switches and push the buttons on the submarine control panel. Or you can sit and watch propaganda films and news reels in the recreated Home Front movie theatre. And sitting in the seats of the humungous World War II gun mounts was a big hit with all the family.

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It’s a bit tricky to find the museum, the first challenge being picking the correct entry to the Navy Base itself, but there are detailed directions on their website and once you’re on site the friendly Navy staff are happy to help you out if you get lost. Admission is free, but since it’s an active Navy Base you need to register as a visitor when you enter the site, so don’t forget to bring valid photo ID such as your passport or driving licence. The museum is open throughout the year, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, but opening times vary, so be sure to check the website for the opening times too.

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If you choose a nice day, then the waterfront is also the perfect place to have a picnic after your visit. There are a couple of canteens and fast food places on site, where you can buy sandwiches or other lunch time food to take outside, if you have forgotten to bring your own. While there are picnic tables on the Navy Base itself, we recommend exiting the site and making yourself comfy on one of the reclining seats down by the water. And moored right next to the Navy Base is the Display Ship Barry, which you can go aboard from Spring to Autumn. I’ll be sharing some photos of our visit to the ship on Friday, so be sure to check back then ;)

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(First image taken by Simon Madine)

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