New Life For Navy History

Naval Academy Museum Is Reopened After An $11.6 Million Makeover

August 30, 2009|By Sarah Fisher | Sarah Fisher,sarah.fisher@baltsun.com

History is often a word that people associate with textbooks and professors speaking in monotones. But with the Naval Academy Museum's complete renovation and redesign, the history of the Navy has become something real and vibrant to academy visitors and midshipmen.

The museum reopened two weeks ago after undergoing an $11.6 million head-to-toe makeover.

"We completely gutted this building," said Scott Harmon, the museum director. The only things left standing at one point, he said, were "the outside walls and the concrete floors."

The new museum has a ship model gallery on the second floor and exhibits on the first floor arranged in a chronological flow, allowing the observer to watch history unfold before them.

"This is a teaching museum," said Michael Halbig, vice academic dean of the academy. "All midshipmen take a course in Navy heritage. This serves as a laboratory."

Midshipmen are taught to follow the examples set by leaders throughout the Navy's history. The museum lets midshipmen put a face to the names of the commanders they learn about.

"When you walk around this museum, you see issues and problems that naval commanders had," said Cmdr. Craig Felker, naval history professor. "We see those same problems today."

Talk of renovations began 11 years ago, according to Capt. Robert Hofford, who is the director of special projects at the Naval Academy Foundation, an organization of academy alumni. He and the museum director at the time knew the building was not suitable to preserve the many artifacts housed within its walls.

The foundation raised $7 million in private funds for new exhibits in the museum. The building itself was renovated with government money.

"There were times when I thought the Navy budget and the economy wasn't going to let it happen," said Hofford.

Before work began, the building was prone to high humidity and heat in the summer, accelerating the deterioration of the artifacts. Historical objects were placed on glass shelving inside large glass cases, which were grouped together but had no particular design flow. The object's name and a brief history appeared on a small black sign placed on the shelf next to it.

"The exhibits were old, they were tired," said Harmon. "The building itself was not a good venue ... for storing art."

The building was constructed in 1939 and had remained virtually unchanged. Now, the air-conditioning system controls temperature and humidity, keeping the entire building at a steady 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

"If I never leave this building. ... I will live a long, long time," said Harmon with a laugh.

Each object on display holds a direct link to the Navy's history, Harmon said. The "Don't Give Up the Ship" flag that flew over the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 is preserved in a glass case on the first floor. For years the flag hung exposed to the elements inside one of the buildings on campus.

One collection of model ships was built by French prisoners of war during the Anglo-French wars, which started in the mid-1700s and lasted until 1815. The prisoners built the model ships from the bones left over from food rations in prison.

The renovations have renewed an interest in the museum, according to Capt. Dan Truax, a volunteer at the museum who works at the front desk every Thursday. The academy announced they were looking for new volunteers, he said, and "30 people showed up."

If you go

The U.S. Naval Academy Museum is located on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Call 410-293-2108 for more information.

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