The Navy has a great opportunity coming up to tell its story, but it looks like we are about to miss an opportunity that only comes along once in a century. Before we get to the meat of it – let’s review some fundamentals.
There are few professions where an understanding of history is more important than the military. Though we debate its application and education here, I don’t think many argue this fundamental fact.
We also live in a Representative Republic where the military is funded based on the support and approval of its nation’s democratically elected Representatives. It is hoped that informed and educated voters result in informed and educated Representatives who will then make the best decisions on where the nation’s funds are spent.
Since the end of WWII, we have seen a steady retreat from large segments of this nation, so that even traditional maritime cities such at New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and regions such as New England and the entire San Francisco Bay area are now devoid of any significant Navy presence. In all the areas above – representing a significant part of our nation – besides small reserve units, the Naval War College, and a few submarines, they are effectively a Navy free zone….and those are in areas with a great Navy tradition in living memory. Add in to this great swaths of this nation that almost never see a Navy uniform …. and you have a challenge. The challenge of telling the Navy’s story.
Most people outside the Navy family do not fully grasp the role our Navy has in their nation’s history, and as a result cannot understand its need for the future. It isn’ t taught in schools, and if it isn’t in your family or your neighborhood – all you see is what Hollywood might feed you while channel surfing. We have to take advantage of every opportunity to tell our story – no one else is.
After Times Square in NYC and the Las Vegas Strip – Washington DC, specifically The Mall, is the most popular destination in the US. Let that soak in, we’ll come back to it.
One of the best ways to tell a story is to let people see it. Museums have stood the test of time, they serve as the foundation stone to telling your story. You have to do it right, or its impact will be lost to those who need it most. The Navy needs a great museum, not a good one, a great one. We don’t have that now.
The most important thing for a museum is location. You can always get more money later … but you can only pick a spot once. If you were going to pick a spot in Washington DC for a museum you would want two things – great visual exposure to attract visitors who may have not thought about going – the “Oooohhhh Daddy, look at that!” strategy; anyone in marketing can tell you the importance of that. The second is access. In DC if you can walk to it, you can get to it. That is where we are making our first mistake.
The Navy is recommending that the proposal for a waterfront Navy museum blocks from the National Mall be sidelined in favor of a location in the northwest corner of the Navy Yard — one that would be outside the complex’s secure perimeter, allowing easier public access.
The current National Museum of the U.S. Navy occupies 98,000 square feet in two buildings within the Navy Yard’s perimeter and has a relatively low number of visitors annually. A new museum would take up more than 200,000 square feet at either location.
There is no better place in DC to tell your story than within easy walking distance from The Mall. Waterfront & The Mall – and you have a winner.
You would be hard pressed to pick a less desirable place for a museum than the neighborhood around the Navy Yard in DC. It is isolated, unattractive, out of the main tourist areas. It is a loser.
What if the Navy had a chance to grab a spot right where 395 enters DC …. thousands to hundreds of thousands of eyeballs every day seeing the museum … a spot that is also a short walk from The Mall? Again, sounds like a winner, right?
Well, it seems not to the minds of those making decisions, decisions I would offer are myopic in the extreme. It also sounds like there are egos involved – egos that are leaning on a bit too much on one of the weaknesses of our profession; a desire for control and power.
Via our friends at NavyTimes,
A Naval Facilities Command brief being circulated among Navy leadership demonstrated a level of wariness on the Navy’s part to enter into an agreement with the National Maritime Heritage Foundation out of a concern for losing a degree of operational control of the facilities. The foundation submitted its proposal in September 2009.
The NAVFAC report, dated Dec. 1 and obtained by Navy Times, indicates the Navy would seek to “maximize Navy control over development and operational management of the museum.” The report lists the lack of operational control and ownership of the building as “risk factors” involved in accepting the NMHF proposal.
Navy history is bigger than any of the personalities involved. Who are they worried about influencing the museum? The Students for a Democratic Society? Ummmm, no.
A source with intimate knowledge of the proposal said the Navy was offered full operational control over the waterfront building. The source said the report was based on an initial proposal only and that the foundation had subsequently offered a 51 percent ownership stake in the building, with first right of refusal over any use of the property, adding that the NAVFAC report made “all the worst assumptions” about the NMHF proposal.
The foundation’s proposal was publicly supported by nine retired admirals, two former Navy secretaries — Gordon England and John Dalton — and prominent Washington politicians, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Mayor Adrian Fenty.
In the business world, 51% IS control. Is cost an issue?
The report concluded that any museum would be an expensive endeavor; cost estimates for the NMHF proposal over 30 years ranged from $384 million to $504 million. The upfront cost to the Navy would be about $78 million.
The Marine Corps paid about $30 million upfront for its museum in Quantico, Va., and the service continues to have tight control over the exhibits and message they convey, a model sources say the Navy wants to follow.
The Navy Yard site, located in a building known as “The Yards” would cost about $428 million over 30 years.
No, cost isn’t a factor between the two. Estimates are a rounding error for the DTS program. The Army and USMC have solid track records for private-public partnerships … and in any event, pure government programs have an exceptionally poor track record for cost and timelines. You can almost smell it …..
The NAVFAC report is unclear on the funding for the Navy Yard location, but the 2015 timeline is based on “sole source approval.” A request for comment from NHHC on what the potential funding source would be or if there was a potential private partner for the Navy Yard location was not returned by press time.
A final mistake I think is a question of who the museum is for. Many in favor of the Navy Yard site. When they get past their control issues, seem to think that the primary audience for the museum is active duty military and their families. I’m sorry, no.
This museum should focus on the American public at large – the taxpayers who support it. A self-licking ice cream cone hidden away in a nasty corner of DC visited by a few who already know the Navy story is not worth the effort.
A crown jewel of a museum, close to The Mall, seen by everyone driving down 395 – with the potential to be a marque location for the millions who visit DC – that is something worthy of our Navy.
Fund raising? Wow. We really underestimate our supporters out there. The Navy League chapters throughout this nation along with the scrum of Navy active duty, reserve, retired, family, friends, and industry …. with the right leadership – this is doable. Even in a rough economy, very doable.
We have a great location with great partners wanting to do something great for our Navy and our nation. Why are we turning away? They seem to have made steps to address “control” issues (which BTW is a serious one given what happened in Canada and other mistakes that can be made WRT history). The money issue is a rounding error. Fund raising is very doable. What am I missing?
We have a chance here, we can have something on par with the 5-Star Air & Space Museum on one end, or the National Aquarium in the basement of the Commerce building on the other. Which do you want for your Navy?
What, you didn’t know we had a National Aquarium in DC? Exactly.
- On Midrats 19 April 2015 – Episode 276: “21st Century Ellis”
- John Quincy Adams — The Grand Strategist: An Interview With Historian Charles N. Edel
- 4 Reasons Not to Resign Your Commission as a Naval Officer
- About Face: A Return to Marine Corps Innovation
- On Midrats 29 March 15 – Episode 273: Partnership, Influence, Presence and the role of the MSC