Archive for the 'Navy museums' Tag

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.

This week’s Navy Times article about a proposal on the desk of the Navy to build a joint, national maritime/Navy museum outside the Navy Yard couldn’t come at a better time. I read the article online and reviewed the proposal (also online) and I think it’s a wonderful and rare opportunity for the Navy.

In recent years, the Navy has elevated the issue of “community outreach” to a strategic level, engaging the highest levels of Navy leadership in the debate over how best to educate the American public about the mission of today’s Navy and the 330,000 people who wear the Navy uniform. Community outreach has traditionally been delegated to local commanders and their public affairs officers, who engage in mayoral duties of kissing babies and shaking hands, making speeches at the local Chambers of Commerce and Rotary Clubs, answering questions from the local media about the number of jobs that would be lost if the local installation were to close, and volunteering at local schools to tutor kids in reading. All politics is local, so that approach made sense.

So, when a 2006 Gallup Poll about the military showed that the public ranked the Navy last in its relevance and importance in today’s war on terror, Navy leadership realized that community outreach needed to have a much higher profile and priority. Since then, they have created and are in the process of executing “Outreach: America’s Navy,” a multi-tiered, multi-year program that involves every flag officer and commanding officer in community outreach events and establishes minimum levels of activities across all major commands – with metrics.

What is not addressed in this new OPNAV instruction is a strategy for using Navy museums and historic Navy ships in their outreach efforts. They could be some of the best weapons in the Navy’s community outreach arsenal. The problem is that most of the Navy museums house antiquated exhibits that are poorly interpreted and many of the museums sit behind security gates. According to this Navy Times article, the 12 Navy-run museums attract collectively 1.2 million visitors annually. By contrast, the recently built Marine Corps Museum attracted one million visitors in its first year of operations. Most of the Navy’s museums and historic ships (the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, the USS Midway in San Diego and the USS Intrepid in New York City are clear exceptions) do not take advantage of the state-of-the-art museum concepts that are employed by top-notch institutions around the country. But that could change.

The Navy has a rare opportunity staring it in the face right now. This article says that an offer is on the table to enter into a public-private partnership to build a National Museum of the U.S. Navy on the waterfront in our nation’s capital. With 25 million tourists visiting DC every year, having a world-class museum close to the National Mall could make a significant impact on the public’s awareness of the critical missions being performed by the Navy today, as well as an understanding of the rich maritime heritage of our nation.

But the window of opportunity offer is not open-ended. As the article points out, the developers will not wait in perpetuity for the Navy to decide how and when it wants to move forward. He who hesitates is lost. In my humble opinion, make the bold move and get our world-class Navy a world-class museum.