Military History Buffs recently scoped out Mt. Vernon on a cold, windy day. We had not visited the site in more than 25 years when we were given a tour of the house on a school field trip. By intention, the house hasn’t changed much and, to their credit, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association convinced the federal government to purchase land across the Potomac from Mt. Vernon in order to preserve the historic view. (Imagine how disconcerting it would be to tour this meticulously preserved 18th century house and then have your historic frame of mind jarred by 21st century, cookie cutter housing developments just across the river from the back yard!) The historic interpreters do a formidable job of telling you what colonial life was like and what kind of plantation owner George Washington was. You learn about how he liked to work at his desk, where he slept, how he treated his slaves and how close he was to Mrs. Washington. And you learn all of this through artifacts. Which is nice. But it tells you little about the leadership trajectory of General Washington, the challenges he faced as the Revolution leader and the legendary accomplishments he achieved in that War and as our nation’s first president.

Then, we walked into the new Visitors Center and were blown away. Not only is the building well integrated into the landscape of the grounds, but it achieves what artifacts and the house never could. We slowly walked through the path of the exhibit (we didn’t want to miss anything!) that guides you through the life of George Washington and, through images, sounds, interactive touch screens, and surround-sound videos, we really became acquainted with the man, the General and the President. We got to know him intimately – at various ages and stages in his life. We experienced George Washington. We look forward to going back in the spring and the summer to explore the distillery, walk the grounds and to go through the exhibit again! And what is amazing to us is that this museum and historic house has been funded by several generations of determined women (the Mount Vernon Ladies Association) who underwrote the entire project with private dollars!

So, why can’t the Navy do this? We’ve been to Pensacola – hats off to that facility and organization that has made the National Museum of Naval Aviation publicly accessible and a true educational experience, taking advantage of the latest in museum technology and best practices. The Air Force has a great museum in Dayton. We can’t say enough about the inspirational and educational new Marine Corps Museum in Quantico. And we hope that the new Army museum will be first rate, although its planned location in Belvoir is problematic. But, what about the Navy? Aside from Pensacola, why can’t the rest of the Navy museums get into the 21st century? They need to have fewer glass exhibit cases, musty uniforms and inoperable cannons. They need to have more exhibits like the ones in Pensacola and the USS Midway museum that give visitors of all ages a taste of the Navy experience – both past and present. Let visitors actually feel what it was like on a submarine with no air conditioning in World War II. Challenge people to explore a swift boat and give them a view of what the Navy crew might have seen along the banks of the Mekong Delta. Give kids a chance to really feel how hard it is to train to be a Navy SEAL. That’s what will give visitors an understanding and an appreciation for the Navy.




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  • Anonymous

    The Navy Museum at the Navy Yard in DC is fantastic already. I went there this weekend and was very impressed with the presentation (with the exception of the submarine section which is tucked away in a corner and appears to be “hand-me-down” from the 100th Anniversary of the Submarine Force Smithsonian exhibit. I encourage everyone to visit the museum and see how well it has evolved. Plus it is VERY child friendly!

  • CDR G (ret)

    Now, you know perfectly well if you want a true Navy experience all you have to do is sign on for a cruise.

    Seriously, that Mount Vernon Ladies Association thing sounds like a challenge someone ought to accept.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    For a maritime nation, it is a wonder to me that the Smithsonian has an Air and Space museum and not a Sea museum.

    Perhaps this is situation that should be corrected.

    V/R,

  • http://[email protected] ETNC(SS) retired

    The Submarine Force Museum and Historic Ship Nautilus are a fine example of a great military museum experience. They have free admission, free parking and an excellent website (http://www.ussnautilus.org/) and normally have a few dedicated volunteers to assist and educate visitors. It also doesn’t hurt that they have a small contingent of active duty personnel around to take care of “the boat.” I will have to admit that it is “tucked away” in Groton, CT near the Submarine Base, but I think that it is worth planning a trip there.

  • http://www.vawarmemorial.org Candi Shelton

    The staff of the Virginia War Memorial has also conducted several “official” visits of Mount Vernon and were equally impressed. In fact, we used some of their ideas for our new Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Memorial due to open this summer in Richmond. Paul is a retired Naval officer and an Ex-POW who spent close to seven years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam. We are proud to name our new education center after Paul and Phyllis and encourage the public to visit us later in the year.

  • Danny

    I have to respectfully disagree with the Anonymous post below. The current Navy Museum does not tell the Navy Story well. It tells “navy stories” well – but there is no overarching narrative to the Museum. Additionally, Museum’s have changed. They are no longer just collections of artifacts on display like some ancient wonder cabinet – they need to communicate the importance of the subject to the general public in a way that will inspire and impress the visitor with the importance of the subject being interpreted. Additionally, in comparison to the Air and Space Museum or any of the other major Museums in Washington, DC the Navy Museum is rather an antique. I would suggest that a visit to the Ocean Exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the Spy Museum or the Newseum if you want to see what a modern museum should be. At the Ocean Exhibit kid level (I mean height and interpretation) is the number one draw. The Navy Museum is not built for kids or the general public and the fact that it is on the Yard and in a corner of the City that is not often visited by tourist is a major drawback.

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