Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Travel Tuesday: USNA Museum

Thanks to generous grandparents, I’m currently on vacation with Mike and no kids. You are free to be jealous.

So one of the first things on our list of things to do was make a pilgrimage back to the school by the bay. When I was a midshipman, I volunteered in the museum in the restoration department. It sounds more impressive than it is, since probably half the time all I did was sit around and listen to the sea stories of some old fogeys. The curator’s area was literally crammed full of history- written, built, remembered, and that doesn’t even cover the museum itself. Or the stuff in the attic for that matter.

Recently, thanks to the navy updating the building and some generous grants from ship lovers and alumni, the entire museum is unrecognizable with the exception of its crown jewel, the ship collection. No longer is it all crammed in the basement with the first floor a semi-organized jumble of interesting stuff. Now the entire basement is dedicated to the restoration department, it’s open and modernized, the references are spread out in a way that makes them much easier to access… I could go on and on, because to me this was all a big deal, but neither that part nor the attic are open to the public, though there is a window by the gift shop you can look into the workshop through. If you are there at a good time (Saturday morning is probably the best) they will have the window open and you can talk to the people inside.

Then there’s the first and second floor- wow. Mike and I were blown away. The 2nd floor used to belong to the Naval Institute, where they had a modest library and a couple classrooms, now it’s the home of the Roger’s Ship Collection and the other sailing vessel models. Most of them are contemporary with the ship they represent, they were built as the ship itself was and often took just as long or longer to make. Usually they were presented to the owner of the vessel so he could brag about the fleet he owned. Some have panels that lift up or away so you can see inside.

Back when I was a mid, I recall them using fiber optic cameras to see some of the spaces within. The details are phenomenal. During one particular restoration we found a note pinned to the inner hull- a note no one had laid eyes on for nearly 200 years! So how much are they worth? Some of them as much as $2 million.

Less accurate, but perhaps even more impressive, is the bone collection, built by prisoners of the War of 1812. They answer the question: what do you do when cramped in a dark, damp space with nothing to do except whittle the soup bones from your watery rations?

The first floor is dedicated to the history of the navy in sort of a clock-wise wheel around a central hub which focuses on the Naval Academy itself. We could have spent hours in there. New touch screens enable you to pick from a couple dozen naval battles from different eras and watch computer generated ships fight it out. If your eyes ever glazed over staring at a map with tiny ship shapes and arrows showing their movements, you will truly appreciate how the battles come alive. Pearl Harbor has its own huge display with lights and maps and sound effects.

And, tucked over in the World War I area so it also edges the history of USNA center, is my baby. In my time I had worked on a couple minor (and not very valuable) restorations, until the curator took me up into the attic to see if I could find a project of my own. In a corner I came across a very dusty, thickly painted, somewhat broken model of a WWI submarine chaser, which I figured I couldn’t do that much more damage to. So in the next couple years, with much help and guidance, I cleaned her up, made her much more accurate to scale, and did lots of research on her type of ship. They turned out to have not only some amazing stories of their own, but after their war time, many were retired to the Naval Academy as training tools for the midshipmen- precursors to the yard patrol craft in use now and when I was there. So it turned out to have significant meaning to the museum in two ways, enabling me to have a small slice of immortality at my old haunting ground.

So if you are in the Baltimore or DC area, take a swing over to Annapolis, it’s a place of great beauty and history- both the town and the yard. If you take a guided tour, know half of what they tell you is not really that impressive (what college these days doesn’t have their own post office/zip code?) and the rest of it is euphemized or exaggerated (IHTFP does not stand for “I have truly found paradise”). Allot a couple hours for the museum (admission is free!) and pay a visit to John Paul Jones’ crypt under the chapel- it takes a church to hold him down, two Marines to keep him quiet, and he still spends all his time in a pickle.

You have my personal permission to get your picture taken by or with any random midshipman passing by, but do them a favor and don’t pick one that looks like he/she is in a hurry.

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