Happy Museum Monday! Today we have a hidden gem in Washington, D.C. to share with you, which we discovered during one of our visits there a couple of years ago. The National Museum of the U.S. Navy 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. It’s great if you have kids who love boats.
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!”.
The displays in the large, hangar-like space mostly followed 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, as well as the Korean War of the 1950s, and the wars in Vietnam. Major battles during these periods were addressed, as well as tactics and technology.
Alongside this, there were also thematic displays such as navigation techniques – do you know your quadrants from your sextants? – minesweeping, submarine warfare, and naval aviation complete with several aircraft suspended from the ceiling. There was also a section on the Home Front, and its campaigns to increase contributions to the war effort.
As you can imagine, the exhibits included 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 was 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 made lasting impressions.
One of the best things, however, about the museum – especially visiting with children as we were – were the interactive elements. There were several interactive touch screens placed around the museum, where you could 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.
In the recreated interior of a submarine’s operation deck, you could peer through the periscopes, or flip the switches and push the buttons on the submarine control panel. Or you could sit and watch propaganda films and news reels in the recreated Home Front movie theatre. Sitting in the seats of the humungous World War II gun mounts was a big hit with all the family.
The museum building overlooks Willard Park, named for named for Admiral Arthur Willard, commandant of the Navy Yard during World War I. It is home to various naval artefacts from different eras. The park overlooks the Anacostia River, and provides a small picnic area for visitors.
It was 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 on Sundays and holidays but opening times vary, so be sure to check the website for the opening times too.