November 07, 2021

Museum Review - US Navy Museum and Navy Memorial

During the DSL meetup in DC, I did my usual tactic of scoping out as many naval/military related museums as I could. On Friday, this was the National Museum of the US Navy, at Washington Navy Yard, and the Navy Memorial, just off the Mall across from the National Archives.

National Museum of the US Navy

Me with a gorgeous sectional model of a Gearing or Sumner class destroyer
Type: USN History Museum
Location: Washington DC
Rating: 4.3/5, Well-done and a good general overview of the USN's history
Price: Free


The Navy Museum, the flagship facility of the Navy History and Heritage Command, is located on-base at the Washington Navy Yard, the oldest shore facility in the US Navy. This means that you have to get a pass to visit, and at time of writing (October 2021), while the Museum is open on Saturday, people who don't have access to the base have to go Monday through Friday, when the visitor control center is open. I went with Cassander and Souleater, and we met Mr Meeseeks there. The visitor control center was not a paragon of good customer service, and the wait was quite long, even though both Cassander and I should have already been in their system.

Washington Navy Yard has a long history as one of the Navy's leading industrial facilities, and the museum is split between two buildings, the bulk in the building where the Naval Gun Factory (the main tenant for the yard from 1886 to 1961) used to build gun breeches, and the Cold War gallery in the Taylor Building, originally built for the Navy's Experimental Model Basin. Outside, there's an open area with a number of different artifacts. We started in the main building, which covers the history of the USN from the revolution to WWII.

Mr Meeseeks, Cassander and Souleater with a 16" shell

Everything in the building was done quite well. The displays were reasonably modern, and the curators had done a good job using all of their resources to tell a coherent story. A handful of large artifacts were used at specific points, including a recreation of a section of Constitution's gundeck and an actual fighting top removed during restoration, a number of medium-sized guns, including a twin 5"/38 and single 5"/51s and 5"/25s, and an F4U Corsair suspended from the ceiling. The biggest of these was the bathyscaphe Trieste, first vessel to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep. Unfortunately, they were doing work in that part of the museum, so we weren't able to get a good look at the exhibits on undersea exploration. Most things are illustrated with a combination of smaller artifacts (weapons, personal items, etc) and ship models, with a number of the models being particularly pretty.

Unfortunately, due to my tendency to ramble and the rest of the group's absurd insistence that we get lunch at around 3, we ran out of time before we could get to the Cold War Gallery. We did hit the park outside, which had a 16"/50 Mk 2 gun, several shells fired by New Jersey during her Vietnam reactivation, a propeller bade from Maine, an old pressure sphere from the submersible Alvin, a 14" railway gun from WWI and most notably a 26" armor plate from Shinano that had been used for ordnance tests after WWII. It was all very cool.

A section of the outdoor museum

On the whole, it was a good museum, although I obviously didn't see all of it, and I was a bit too much in tour guide mode to pay close attention to the finer details. In general, it seemed pitched more at the general public than places like Groton, but there's enough to make it a worthwhile stop for the geeks, too. The only real downside is that it is behind the base's security perimeter, which can make getting there a bit difficult. The visitor center is at the entrance off O Street, which is quite a distance from any of the Metro stops (provided the Metro is working, of course, which it often wasn't while we were there). The Navy recently announced a plan to rectify that, building a new building that would give free access to the public. It will be a few years before that is ready, but in the meantime, it's well worth a visit if you have time while you're in DC.

I was able to get back to the Navy Museum during the 2022 DSL meetup, and go through the Cold War gallery only weeks before they shut it down as early preparation for the move. Unfortunately, as of mid-November 2022, the Navy Museum will be operating in a much-reduced state and only open on Saturday, while the visitor center is only open M-F. They hope to have the new museum open in 2025, and until then, most people won't be able to go.

Navy Memorial

Me at the Navy Memorial Plaza
Type: Memorial plaza and visitor center
Location: Washington DC
Rating: 3.3/5, Mildly interesting, but not worth going out of the way for
Price: Free


After we got done at the Navy Yard, Souleater and I decided to swing by the Navy Memorial, just off the Mall. This is fairly understated, with an open plaza, a statue of a single sailor, some masts with signal flags and a few fountains that were empty when we got there. The most notable thing aboveground was a set of bronze reliefs, commemorating various events, people, groups and ship types important to the history of the US Navy. They were very interesting from an artistic perspective, although the choice of subjects was not coherent at all. One end had the LST, John Paul Jones, Perry's opening of Japan and Destroyer Escorts. A common theme, there is not.

One of the bronze reliefs

In one of the nearby buildings, there's a visitor center, which has the great virtue of being free. It wasn't huge, and the exhibits that I scanned looked OK at telling the high-level story of the USN, although lack of time kept me from giving them a through going over. There was a theater, but as we got in 7 minutes before it closed, we didn't have time to check it out. Overall, it's not somewhere I'd recommend specifically seeking out, but it was decent enough as a place to visit for a few minutes if you have the time. Just be aware that it's a long walk from the Navy Yard. (We would have taken the metro, but there was a fire...)


  1. November 09, 2021David W said...

    "several shells fired by New Jersey during her Vietnam reactivation"

    How is this possible? I thought the whole point of firing shells was that they change rapidly from 'artifact' to 'shrapnel'?

  2. November 09, 2021bean said...

    They were practice/target shells, without any explosive charge. I believe they were fired as part of the working-up process, and retrieved afterwards for analysis.

  3. November 09, 2021Blackshoe said...

    @David W: BL&P rounds for testing/calibration, I expect

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