Week 12: National Museum of the United States Navy


Museum mission: The National Museum of the U.S. Navy collects, preserves, displays, and interprets historic naval artifacts and artwork to inform, educate, and inspire naval personnel and the general public.

I have to admit, it took a little while for me to find a “hook” to grab onto at the Navy Museum, to feel like a literate visitor. First, there was the process of getting in. When I’d visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine on Walter Reed’s campus, back when the military hospital was located in NW DC, I’d had to show a security officer my ID. I guessed that the procedure would be similar at Navy Yard, but here, I had to fill out a form, wait in line ten minutes, show the form and my ID to the person at the desk, have the person at the desk fill out another form, and keep this form and my ID out to show at the gate. I say this not to discourage anyone from visiting, but just to prepare visitors: make sure you have a government-issued ID with you, and budget time for the security process.

Another hiccup was that the person at the desk told me about the art gallery and marked it on the map, but when I got to the building, it was closed. I did see the Navy Museum itself, of course, as well as the USS Barry display ship.

National Museum of the United States Navy

National Museum of the United States Navy: "The Regular Navy Man"

Once inside the museum, I made my way among the artifacts: lots of cannon, ship parts, model ships, weapons. Military history is not a huge area of interest or expertise for me; I don’t pore over accounts of battles, fascinated by the strategy or the unfolding of events or the equipment used. Instead, the objects that most intrigued me today were the ones related to sailors as individuals. The most memorable pieces were a picture a child drew after his father died at sea, the colorful napkins that were used to welcome sailors home, and the diary kept by a prisoner of war. I also enjoyed “The Regular Navy Man,” which describes the man in uniform as a normal human being, flawed like everyone else and living a gritty, un-romanticized life at sea.

The museum includes an exhibit about 9/11, which focuses primarily on the Pentagon. Since much of the commemoration of 9/11 is criticized for emphasizing the World Trade Center attacks too heavily, the Navy Museum’s exhibit seemed different from other museums’ treatments of 9/11, and, perhaps to some visitors, more appropriate for a museum located in DC.

National Museum of the United States Navy

National Museum of the United States Navy, view from the porthole on the Barry

After visiting the museum itself, I toured the Barry and enjoyed the beautiful weather. I couldn’t help but notice that for a site with such high security, I was now practically alone on the ship. There must not have been any military secrets on the ship, but there was an abundance of tripping hazards. The ship is not at all accessible, but as a result, those visitors physically able to navigate the steep ladders and narrow passageways are given a more realistic sense of what it’s like to be aboard. As I climbed and ducked, I imagined 43 sailors rushing through the tight spaces at once, on their way to eat their 10-minute dinner.

I picked up a number of brochures, including some with activities for kids, and I had arrived at the museum around the same time as a school group who was there for an educational activity. I felt most comfortable while inside the museum itself, and I am reminded of the fact that while I am museum-literate, I am decidedly military-facility-illiterate. I was torn between wanting to make sure I didn’t miss anything I could have seen, and wanting to avoid accidentally wandering somewhere I wasn’t allowed to go.  I know there are people who feel a similar level of disorientation every time they visit a museum, no matter where it’s located, or what the security screening consists of, or who funds and runs the museum. This week’s Weekly Museum Visit involved not just visiting yet another museum, but also exploring an unfamiliar part of my city and stepping a little more out of my comfort zone.

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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").
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