November 06, 2022

Museum Review - DC Redux 2022

During the DSL meetup in DC this year, I was able to get back to several of the museums I visited last year, to update my impressions and see some stuff I hadn't gotten to. (I also finally got to Udvar-Hazy, review coming next week.)

There's a truly massive and very pretty model of Forrestal

First was the US Navy Museum, this time with Cassander and Evan, to go through the Cold War Gallery in Building 70 (the former home of the David Taylor Model Basin), missed last year because of time. It was a pretty straightforward continuation of the main museum, focusing mostly on submarines, Korea and Vietnam. The Korea and Vietnam sections were kind of sparse and lacking in narrative, while there were some weird empty spaces on the submarine side. But there were lots of pretty ship models, and a number of full-scale submarine sections prepared for display, in a lot of cases showing stuff better than most museum submarines.

They also had a Betty nuclear depth bomb, which per ancient tradition, I had to hug

This was all explained when we went back to the main building and ran into one of their volunteers, who also pointed us at the secret submarine room behind the baseball exhibit, with periscopes and a Torpedo Data Computer that had at least some of the dials working. In preparation for the new museum, they're closing down Building 70, which will be swapped to a developer for the parcel of land for the new museum, and consolidating stuff in the existing museum in Building 76. But about half of the space is going to be needed for storage, so before too long the museum will be much reduced. Worse, as of mid-November 2022 the reduced museum will only be open on Saturdays. That doesn't sound so bad, except that the visitor center is only open M-F, completely closing it to the general public. The current plan is to try to have the first parts of the new museum open by the USN's 250th birthday in 2025, an ambitious goal I hope they achieve. In any case, this review will be useless pretty much immediately, but it was fun to see the current facility before it closed.

Second was the main Air and Space Museum on the Mall, which was under construction last year, and had been almost completely transformed this time around. The only gallery that I saw both times was the Wright Flyer display, and I'm not 100% sure it was on the same floor as it was last year. The new exhibits all looked spectacular, and they did a very good job of telling the relevant story to the general public, mixing planes, artifacts and well-done signage. I quite enjoyed the galleries on the Space Race (mostly Apollo) and the history of airlines and airliners. The other ones open weren't on topics I have a deep interest in, but that will probably change as they get more stuff open. As before, it's very clearly aimed at the sort of person who visits an air museum once a decade or less, and not at me, but it is very, very good at what it is. Note that when I visited, the museum required free timed tickets for entry, and they were pretty hard to get on short notice.

The view inside Philadelphia

Lastly, I also went by American History again. The only major difference was that the exhibit around the gunboat Philadelphia was open, giving a better view of the gunboat itself, and access to most of the exhibit, which was to the same, very high, standard as the rest of the museum. As with NASM across the Mall, it's very clearly aimed at the general public, which makes it almost painfully conventional to me. But when someone asked me what I'd do differently, I had to admit that I wouldn't change very much. The vast majority of people visiting need the conventional narrative, and it was done exceptionally well. It's also a great place to play tour guide if the people you are with are less knowledgeable than you are on the subject. The fact that you have social permission, and some artifacts to point at/inspire talk, makes that a lot easier. Still a strong recommendation to go.

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