Week 29: United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center

Another lunchtime lecture: this time in honor of Black History Month, to hear Paul Stillwell speak about his book Trailblazer: The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral, the story of Samuel Gravely.

I arrived at the United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center early so I could have some time to look at the exhibits.  I used to use the Archives Metro stop every day, and I’ve certainly seen the Navy Memorial countless times, but I had never been inside its indoor museum space.

I was immediately struck by the fact that it was bigger than I expected.  The door appears to go into a small part of a building shared with other businesses; however, upon entering, you go downstairs into a much larger exhibit space in the basement.

At the bottom of the stairs is a tiny meditation room.  The Meditation Museum in Silver Spring, which I visited last fall, has a meditation room, but I had not specifically expected to see one here at the Naval Heritage Center.  In the alcove are four chairs, a piece of stained glass art, and a selection of holy books.

The exhibit where I spent the most time was Year of Navy Supply, which informs visitors about all the labor and materials that go into keeping the Navy’s ships running for one year; services such as food, laundry, and waste removal were featured.  Facts presented along with photos, objects, and a life-sized model of a food counter give a sense both of what a sailor’s everyday life is like (what they eat, how they send their mail) and of the other people whose jobs are integral to the Navy.

The chef model at the food counter

Next to the food counter (which asks visitors not to touch) is a child-sized wooden table with food puzzle pieces that can be moved around.  This table offers children something to play with, and an alternative to touching the food counter itself.  It could be enhanced with text, for parents and children, linking the food puzzle table to the information in the exhibit (for example, text could read, “What food would you choose to cook for the sailors? Put together a meal that tastes good and is good for you!”)

Table for children

One part of the exhibit describes the removal of trash (such as candy wrappers) from ships and the process of turning all this waste into a hard plastic disc; this procedure helps to save money as well as the environment.  I’m curious what then happens to the discs, whether they can be used for a new purpose.  One of them is on display in the museum, with a “Please Touch” sign.

My favorite part evoked memories of the National Postal Museum: Sailor Mail, with postcards that visitors can address to a sailor and slip into a mailbox.  The Navy Memorial will take care of mailing them, including postage costs. All visitors need to do is write a note thanking a sailor for his or her service. At other museums that honor the military, I’ve seen guest books filled with visitors’ comments expressing gratitude to troops.  Here, instead of signing a guest book, visitors can send their gratitude directly to its recipient.

Sailor Mail: Send a postcard to a sailor

The rest of the museum includes additional exhibits, a theater, a hall of plaques, a media room, a gift shop, men’s and women’s heads (restrooms), and the small lecture room where I heard Paul Stillwell speak.  Throughout the museum, the wavy pattern on the blue carpet evokes the sea.

Stillwell told us about the life, struggles, and accomplishments of the Navy’s first black admiral, Samuel Gravely.  Beginning in World War II and stretching into subsequent decades, Gravely found himself in the middle of experiments in integrating the military (and every time, he proved that yes, African Americans can do it). At one point, when he was an officer in the Navy, he was arrested for impersonating an officer by an Army MP (Military Police) who could not conceive of the idea of a real black officer.

Author Paul Stillwell

After Stillwell’s talk, I went outside and finished my visit with a few minutes of photographing the Navy Memorial.

Bas-relief at the Navy Memorial


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Museums and Holidays, Photos, Weekly Museum Visits Part I and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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