Of all the memorials in D.C., the U.S. Navy Memorial is perhaps the most understated. Many people walk across the memorial’s granite world map or sit on the surrounding fountains thinking it’s just a large pedestrian plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue. The memorial’s companion museum, the Naval Heritage Center, is even less conspicuous, occupying a small storefront just to the north. I’d passed by many times without noticing it, and — as I was soon to discover — that was probably for the best.
After finding the doorway to the museum, I descended a spiral staircase into a low-ceilinged room, quiet except for heart-pumping “Mission: Impossible”-style music — a soundtrack made somewhat less thrilling by the fact that it was being broadcast by a single tinny speaker. This 40-second clip looped intermittently the entire time I was down there, and it’s been looping intermittently in my mind ever since.
The soundtrack turned out to be one of the museum’s more memorable features. That’s because the exhibits consist mostly of freestanding panels covered with impenetrable military jargon. Here’s some of the riveting text I forced myself to read: “… the office of the Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) of the Navy was established to provide a direct communication link between enlisted personnel and the Bureau of Naval Personnel. On that day, Master Chief Delbert D. Black was appointed SEA to advise the Chief of Naval Personnel …”
This is the introduction to an exhibit called “The Year of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.” As it turns out, I know a little about master chiefs, because my husband was in the Navy and his best stories feature these salty characters. The Navy’s highest-ranking enlisted officials, master chiefs are known for being no-nonsense, resourceful and straightforward.
Unfortunately, the exhibit about master chiefs was none of these things.
In addition to the panels of dense text, the master chief exhibit has some objects on display, including a navigation wheel, a leather chapbook and a 1904 photo of a Navy electrician. The accompanying text leaves it largely up to the viewer to infer what these objects have to do with master chiefs or, indeed, why they are on display at all.
The most compelling part of the exhibit turned out to be its inadvertent display of historic audiovisual technology, which ranged from a slide projection to several generations of touch screens. The projected image details subtle developments in master chief uniforms and insignia from 1913 to 1922. With the touch screens, you can scroll through pages and pages of military documents while watching unnarrated videos of modern-day sailors passing boxes to one another.
Overall, the technology in the Naval Heritage Center was short of shipshape. Many of the touch screens lagged badly, and all four kiosks under a sign that said “Navy Log” were down during my visit. I was, however, able to glean that the Navy Log is a place where you can look up people who were once in the Navy. Strangely, this database is made up primarily of information entered by the service members themselves or their family members. Since it’s not checked against official military records, it seems like it wouldn’t be very useful to anyone besides maybe the museum’s fundraisers.
Despite these shortcomings, the Naval Heritage Center attracts a steady stream of visitors. Some of the ones I observed attempted to skim the displays, but most beelined directly for the bathroom and then headed right back out.
Given its clear popularity among toilet-seeking tourists, perhaps the Naval Heritage Center should reconsider its exhibits. I’m thinking something like “Commodes of the Commodores” would be pretty popular. Or, they could move some of the display text to the insides of restroom doors, and take advantage of that captive audience.
To be fair, there were a few cool things on display, including a scale model of the USS Constitution and an old-timey scuba suit. It’s also possible that I’m not the intended audience for this museum. Still, it’s hard to imagine an audience for a touch screen display that gives you the option to learn about VERTREP, CONREP, “SEABEES” and “FY19 Budget.” If you know what these things mean, you’ll be bored by their explanatory videos. If you don’t know what these things mean, you’ll also be bored.
So, unless you find yourself in Penn Quarter in need of a head (dirty-minded readers, that’s what you call a ship’s bathroom), steer clear of the Naval Heritage Center. Your naval history needs can be met much better at several other area museums, including one in the actual Navy Yard.
More adventures with the Staycationer