June 02, 2024

Museum Reviews - 2024 New England Meetup

During the 2024 Naval Gazing Meetup, I got a chance to revisit several museums I'd been to years ago, and I thought I should take the chance to update my impressions based both on what has changed there and on the fact that I have spent the last few years thinking about how best to run a museum ship.

First was Battleship Cove, where the biggest change was the loss of Hiddensee, which had to be scrapped in 2023 because she was in bad shape and it would have been too expensive to keep her. This is an unfortunately common fate for Soviet-bloc museum ships, and I am aware of at least three others that were ultimately consigned to the scrapyard for similar reasons, but at least I got to see her before she went, unlike the others. This has had a knock-on effect, as previously visitors got onboard Lionfish via Hiddensee, so Lionfish is currently closed while they get alternate access set up. I believe they're hoping to get her open sometime this summer.

One of the highlights was a visit to the powder magazine and shell rings inside the barbette

Beyond that, Massachusetts was pretty much as I remembered her. A lot of the ship was open, and they made an effort to give visitors routes through the ship, although I wish the markings were a bit larger and more frequent.1 They've also done a really good job of ensuring visitor access throughout the ship, in a way I didn't notice last time and probably wouldn't have if I hadn't taken a large group down below on Iowa. Access ladders are slightly less steep in a few places, some sills are cut away, and we were generally able to make good time unless we got turned around (see previous comments about route markings). Signage was decent throughout the ship, and they'd set up a lot of video screens with recordings of veterans explaining the relevant compartment. I do think they could use a refresh, particularly on some of the outside stuff, but it's decent if not great.

The PT boat museum in the former mess deck2

And when I say a lot of the ship was open, I mean an awful lot. If asked to make a list of interesting places you can't go that might reasonably be open, I think the most prominent is the anchor windlass room. The only real downside is that a lot of compartments are glassed, which makes taking pictures hard, but works reasonably well for in-person visits. The bigger downside is that a lot of spaces have been turned into exhibit spaces, often with minimal attention to what was there originally. For instance, both of the crew messes got turned into a PT boat museum (presumably before they got the PT boats they have, only one of which was open), while the officer's wardroom is now the ship's restaurant. (Actually, anchor windlass may be a museum space, too, in which case I am impressed that they got the equipment out.) I'm not a complete purist who thinks everything should be exactly as it was when she was in service, but there are things that are missing that I really wish weren't.

At least I was able to give the ASROC launcher an appropriate greeting

Joseph P. Kennedy was rather disappointing. Last time I visited, she was quite open, but this time, everything was closed off below the main deck, leaving only the superstructure open, and even there, the DASH hangar wasn't accessible. You can still see the officer's country, various offices and workshops in the superstructure, as well as the ASROC launcher. I'm not quite sure what the story with the closures is, and I really hope this is temporary. The helicopters were also inaccessible, as they're building a new building to house them. Lastly, we learned that there's a nearby maritime museum, but didn't have time to go, as the tour of the two ships that were open took most of the day.

To be clear, I would recommend going. Yes, it is dated and there are some issues, but on the whole, it's a very enjoyable place, particularly if you're a serious geek. I do think Iowa is better for the general public, but Battleship Cove isn't bad for that market, either.

Excellent use of a mannequin

The next day, we were off to the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, which was little changed from when I visited six years ago. It was still a fabulous museum, and they hadn't ruined any of the signage I remembered fondly. The only criticism I had was that the audio tour for Nautilus wasn't working, and it had been quite good. But going back with the benefit of a lot more years, I was even more impressed by how well they had done things, particularly on Nautilus herself. The signage was good and they did an excellent job of telling the stories of the ship in a fairly minimalist way. Seriously, everyone who is running a museum ship should go there and take a look at how they've handled the whole thing. I was particularly impressed by their use of mannequins, which a lot of museum ships get wrong. Even Lord Nelson, who is not interested in submarines and was really looking forward to Mystic Seaport, very much enjoyed it and agreed that Groton was the better museum. Seriously, this place is amazing, and you should go.

We inspect the Rodman guns at Fort Trumbull3

For lunch, we went to Fort Trumbull over in New London in my continued pursuit of a look at the interior of a Third System Fort. Unfortunately, the internet was bad at distinguishing between the state park around the fort being open and the fort itself being open, which because we were in New England didn't happen until Memorial Day. So we started wandering around the fort with me discussing what we were seeing. Besides the fort itself (smaller than Independence and truncated to cover the river instead of being mostly symmetrical) there were several outlying batteries, including one with a couple of old Rodman guns installed. There was a little bit of signage, and on the whole it seems a nice enough, if not a major attraction without the fort tour. And then, as we rounded the front of the fort, I saw masts, and realized that they were at what I was pretty sure was the direction of the Coast Guard station in New London. So I took off running and soon found that my guess was accurate and we could see Eagle. Even more astonishingly, we were allowed to go aboard, discussed separately.

Appropriate use of a sea shanty

After that, it was off to Mystic Seaport, which was nice enough, but where we again fell victim to the fact that it was before Memorial Day, so a lot of stuff wasn't open. In particular, the only ship that I saw which we could go aboard was Charles W Morgan, and the rest of the collection seemed to be closed off. This was kind of disappointing, but the stuff ashore was largely open, and we had an enjoyable time. The highlight was the "working aloft" demonstration on the Morgan, where we got to watch several of their staff climb the rigging, then helped haul up a yard, using a sea shanty for its original purpose.4 It significantly helped my understanding of the actual mechanics of working a sailing ship, and I would recommend seeking that, and possibly other demonstrations, out if you go. Beyond that, it was pretty much the same place I reviewed six years ago. Nice enough, particularly as paired with Groton, but a bit kid-focused and not somewhere I'd recommend going out of your way for on its own.

On the whole, the meetup was a success, and I had a great time. The current plan is to do the next one in LA, where those who missed Iowa last year can get another chance to see the greatest ship ever built.

1 My ideal would be something like a painted stripe on deck with arrows every few feet, so there's essentially no way to get lost.

2 Photo courtesy of Hunter.

3 Photo courtesy of Ian Argent.

4 Sea shanties were songs used to coordinate sailors pulling on a rope.


  1. June 02, 2024Forty said...

    RSS is broken again

  2. June 07, 2024Ski206 said...

    Well actually the greatest ship ever built isn't USS Iowa. It's not even first among its class with that honor going to the USS New Jersey.

    As for the all time number one holy smokes that would be a tough one.

    Battle Stars? USS Nicholas with 30 Longest career for a combatant?I think that's Enterprise CVN-65 Most destruction off the enemy in the shortest period? USS Tang I think

    The First USS Enterprise CV-6 would make a lot of lists.

    Man that's tough.

    And yes I get that you were making a subjective statement and I went a different way. Just had to have some fun with this.

    But seriously New Jersey is waaaaaay better than Iowa.

  3. June 07, 2024bean said...

    You have no idea how wrong you are. But a proper education has to be done in person. Come to next year's meetup, and I'll prove you wrong. (Or not, but you'll enjoy it.)

  4. June 08, 2024AlanL said...

    My ideal would be something like a painted stripe on deck with arrows every few feet, so there’s essentially no way to get lost.

    My son saw the warning signs about asbestos in the boiler room of HMS Belfast and took off like a startled rabbit. You have no idea how much faster an eight year old is than an adult up & down ladders and through confined walkways in a cruiser's machinery spaces. Took me what felt like twenty minutes to find him again.

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