September 12, 2018

Museum Review - USS Nautilus and Submarine Force Museum

While visiting Sister Bean in Boston, we drove down to see the USS Nautilus and the attached Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. It was a bit of a drive, but what we found when we arrived proved that we'd made the right decision. The entire complex joined the list of the great military museums I've been to, instead of the merely good.

Me at a mockup control panel1
Type: Museum of the submarine force, including the world's first nuclear-powered submarine
Location: Groton, Connecticut
Rating: 4.8/5, An exceptionally well-done look at submarine history and warfare
Price: Free


The sail of NR-1

I suspect that many of you are surprised that I'm rating Nautilus above both Massachusetts and Midway. I am too, but they earned it. Even as we were walking towards the front doors, I was starting to see cool stuff I hadn't expected to run across. In that particular case, it was the sail and manipulator arm of NR-1, a nuclear-powered research submarine specializing in fine work deep underwater. It's impossible not to love a submarine that had wheels.

A large model of a fleet boat, with a Polaris A3 in the background

Inside were more pleasant surprises. First, the museum displays were done really well. They laid out the basics of undersea warfare in a way that had me taking pictures of some of them for reference use while still being accessible to the average visitor. All facets of submarine history were at least discussed, from the earliest days of Bushnell and Holland (who I know were separated by over a century) to the American submarine in WWI, and a lot on the Cold War. The biggest suggestion I would make is to talk a bit more about WWII, and the role the submarine played in that. On the other hand, there are a lot of fleet boats floating around to do that job, and those can't really cover the Cold War that well.

The museum took a couple of hours to get through. There were models of the Turtle (which had me admiring the men who volunteered to dive the thing even more than I already did) and a WWII fleet boat that gave great context to what I'd seen on Batfish and Lionfish, as it showed the parts not on the tour. There were weapons ranging from one of the first Whitehead torpedoes delivered to the USN to a Polaris A-3 missile, and they had a Torpedo Data Computer that was functional, or at least responded when you turned the knobs. They weren't calling attention to it, which I think is a tragedy because everyone else was looking at the periscopes that were in the same room and giving me weird looks because I was drooling over a box.2 They also had the USS Barb's battle flag, which was neat, as Barb is a personal favorite of mine.

The control room aboard Nautilus

Nautilus herself was equally well done. It was full of glass and mannequins, normally two pet peeves of mine where museum ships are concerned, but it was done well enough that I didn't mind them too much. The entire boat was glassed off, primarily because there simply wasn't room to let visitors through spaces without putting them in touching range of important things. The signage was good, giving enough context for someone reasonably interested to figure out what they were looking at, without being stupidly obvious. The mannequins were used consistently, instead of just being in one or two spaces, and done pretty well, which made them less obnoxious. The audio tour was also pretty good,3 probably because it wasn't too long. I suspect this was because space onboard was very limited, so they didn't want long backups. Unfortunately, you only see the forward torpedo room, the ship control spaces, and the officer and crew living spaces. I believe the reactor has been removed entirely4 and they haven't done anything else with the aft section of the boat.

The crew mess

The one issue is that some of the displays are kind of dated. The last major overhaul was in 2000, and it showed in a few places. According to the docent I stopped by to compliment, they're currently working on a major revamp. I have mixed feelings about that. There are a few parts which could be done better, but I hope they're careful to not spoil a truly amazing museum. The only places I've ever been that shared the same state of continual amazement at what I was seeing were the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH, and the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, NM. And neither of them house a vessel that changed the face of naval warfare.

1 All pictures from my collection.

2 In fairness, that might be a good thing given how many of the visitors were kids.

3 I never use audio tour aids, but I enjoyed this one.

4 Which I suppose means I've seen all of Nautilus, as I once got to tour the Hanford site in Washington state, where they store decommissioned naval reactors.


  1. September 14, 2018doctorpat said...

    How does a museum exhibit get dated? I would think that if it was accurate at the time, then that's it, it's right.

  2. September 14, 2018bean said...

    One wing was an excellent look at contemporary submarine warfare, but "contemporary" means c.2000. The changes since then haven't been huge, and the bits I was taking pictures of for reference use were from there. But there are differences. Back then, the Los Angeles-class was the backbone of the fleet, while they're leaving service quickly these days. Virginia was still 4 years from commissioning, and she and her sisters are where the bulk of the fleet is now. Technology has moved on. Subtly, but it has.

  3. September 14, 2018Gbdub said...

    The only major naval museums I’ve been to so far are Midway and Nautilus, and now I worry I’m spoiled.

    Did you stop by the US Submariner’s memorial? It’s hard to miss on the way to Nautilus from the highway, they have the conning tower from USS Flasher and granite walls listing all the US submariners killed in WWII, as well as panels depicting every boat lost including date and cause.

  4. September 14, 2018bean said...

    You've definitely seen some of the best ones. A lot of the smaller ships don't measure up. But they're still fun.

    Did you stop by the US Submariner’s memorial? It’s hard to miss on the way to Nautilus from the highway, they have the conning tower from USS Flasher and granite walls listing all the US submariners killed in WWII, as well as panels depicting every boat lost including date and cause.

    I did not. We may have come in from the other direction. I did go to the one in Seal Beach, CA, which sounds pretty similar, except for the lack of a conning tower.

  5. September 14, 2018Gbdub said...

    Actually I take that back, I’ve also been to the Australian National Maritime Museum (Sydney) (a decade ago, so I can’t really write a review) which has an excellent museum building and an interesting fleet of tourable vessels. I vaguely recall the main building having excellent exhibits, and the vessels being well preserved but not as tourable / well explained as say Midway. Maybe on par with the Nautilus museum for raw quality, but larger and with broader, more generalist scope.

    A very long time ago (like 20 years probably) I was on the USS Silversides in Muskegon MI, which was probably similar to the other fleet boats (she is afloat though)

  6. September 14, 2018Bruce said...

    WOW that crew mess looks ROOMY. Is it really that big? It's like a sub in a movie.

  7. September 14, 2018Aapje said...


    Just google for "submarine mess" and you will see that it is fairly typical.

  8. September 14, 2018bean said...


    They've removed several of the tables for visitor access. The enlisted crew of Nautilus was somewhere around 100, so it's not like they didn't need quite a few seats.

  9. September 15, 2018Bruce said...

    Thanks, I was thinking maybe they'd glassed out the hull outside the mess.

  10. September 16, 2018bean said...

    I'm not sure they cut the hull forward at all. There's a set of stairs into the torpedo room, I believe through the forward torpedo hatch, and the rest of the tour is inside the hull.

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