Navy Museum Marks Milestone

Posted May 9, 2003 at 3:19pm

As with so many seemingly serendipitous events, the Navy Museum — now celebrating its 40-year anniversary — emerged out of that age-old compulsion called keeping up with the Joneses.

After a 1961 trip to visit the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh Burke returned home impressed by the historical naval displays in the museums of the United States’ European counterparts.

“Burke came back and said we should have something that good,” said Navy Museum Director Kim Nielsen.

Prior to Burke’s lobbying, the Naval Gun Factory Museum — the Navy Museum’s World War II-era appellation — occupied a smaller building on the north end of its current location in the Washington Navy Yard’s building 76, the former breech mechanism shop.

In honor of four decades in building 76, the Navy Museum last week launched “Spanning Three Centuries: Museums on the Washington Navy Yard,” an exhibit which traces the museum’s earliest incarnations back to its incipient manifestation in 1800 — just as the yard itself was being formed — as a hodge-podge collection of alfresco artifacts inspired mainly out of a desire to emulate the British Royal Navy’s array of “trophies of war.”

The collection — then known as the Museum of Naval Relics and Weapons — got its first official roof in 1865 under John B. Montgomery, commandant of the Navy Yard. In 1913, it moved from its digs in a former paint shop to another Navy Yard site, only to have its new building scrapped to make way for a transportation-repair shop and coal-storage space. For about eight years, much of the collection was boxed up and sent to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.

But grander plans were on the horizon.

In 1932, the Naval Historical Foundation commissioned William Partridge to design a $1 million structure. “The first location contemplated was Seventh [Street] and Independence Avenue Southwest [along the Mall] and another was at the waterfront near the old Titanic Memorial,” Nielsen said.

Despite being supported by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, plans for a capacious, two-story museum on the scale of the neoclassical behemoths that dot the Washington landscape were eventually discarded, however, due to an unwillingness on the part of a post-World War II Congress to appropriate the necessary funds.

Instead, until 1963, when the museum took up its current residence, the collection had to content itself with the 1935 location in a building at the northern end of where it stands today.

Among the highlights of “Spanning Three Centuries” is a motley assemblage of military and historical marginalia, which includes the bronze, breech-loading 8-pounder cannon Hernán Cortés used to defeat the Aztecs in the early part of the 16th century (the United States acquired it from its southern neighbor after victory in the Mexican-American War); the plaster death mask of Adm. George Dewey, the great naval strategist and hero of the Spanish-American War; and an 1886 copy of Morrison’s Stranger’s Guide for Washington city, which praised the initial Museum of Naval Relics and Weapons as one of the most popular destinations in late-19th-century Washington and noted that at the time the public was allowed to board the yard’s ships in port at whim.

“Security in the Navy Yard today is probably tighter than it’s been in the 200-year history of the Yard,” asserted Nielsen, pointing to the laissez-faire approach vis-á-vis security which predominated until more recent times.

At the ceremony marking the museum’s anniversary last week, veterans reflected on the collection’s evolution over the years.

“I feel very close to the founding of this building,” said Earl Brannock, a friend of founder Burke who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. “I watched it grow.”

“Spanning Three Centuries: Museums on the Washington Navy Yard,” runs until October. Visitors to the museum must make advance reservations by calling (202) 433-6897.