So much gets written about the great museums of the Mall, you might think they were the only show in town. Of course the Smithsonian's are unparalleled cultural wonder, unique in scale and accessibility worldwide, but that doesn't mean they're the only show in town. I'm not talking about the National Gallery of Art, so close they're often confused with the Smithsonian. Nor am I talking about the plethora of high quality pay museums that have been popping up like mushrooms after a rain storm the last decade or so. I'm talking about these little, quirky, never heard of museums that would be cultural icon somewhere else but get starved for oxygen in the shadow of the Smithsonian (I like to mix my metaphors, so stuff it).
Therefore, from time to time, I'm going to try to highlight some of these off the beaten path museums. Some are footsteps away from things you paid hundreds of dollars in airline tickets to come visit. Others require more advanced planning to get to. In picking which ones to highlight, I'm asking two questions. Do they provide enough detail that a buff might consider making a special trip here to visit it? And does it provide enough general interest that someone who has never before given a damn about, say, beads, that they will walk out of there with a new found interest?
Without further ado, let's chat about one of my favorite museums in DC, the Navy Museum. My half dozen or so devout fans no doubt remember I have a little Naval experience under my belt, so I certainly fall into the first of my two categories. I first came across the Museum in my college days when I wrote my thesis about the Navy in Vietnam and wandered over from the nearby Navy History and Heritage Command's archives to check out the Swift boat on display. Yes, the very same for those of you with fond (or not so fond) memories of the 2004 Presidential Campaign.
So clearly the Museum is a hit for people who tend to bore their spouses with arcane trivia about the conversion from sail to steam and the relevance of Mahan in today's world. But what about the rest of us, er uhm, I mean, you?
All I can say is that the Museum has quite a bit to offer non-Navy folks as well. The history of the Navy in many ways shadows the growth of the United States and its emergence on the world scene. As the Navy was a principal agent for America to represent itself overseas, much of the exhibits detail this early international role. It's an interesting perspective to take a look at. Naturally, the Navy's role in our wars is documented as well. In particular, take a look at the Civil War section. They have a chunk of the USS Kearsarge's stern post there, with an unexploded shell from the CSS Alabama still in it. An important lesson in keeping our powder dry for all of us.
I strongly recommend spending some time exploring the park and grounds outside, especially for kids. When I give a tour to middle schoolers and they've maxed out their "well behaved" time in DC, I try to schedule a swing by the Navy Yard and give them an hour or so to detox from all these old people (including myself) yelling at them and telling them not to talk. It's a lovely park along the Anacostia river, with the ex-USS Barry open for visits. For being littered with artifacts of death and destruction it's a surprisingly calming place.
The Navy Museum is located in the Washington Navy Yard, and active military installation. Please make sure you bring government issued ID cards if you are over 16, and be prepared to have large bags and parcels checked. The Museum is open from 9-5 on weekdays, and 10-5 on weekends and holidays.
To get there take the Green Line to Navy Yard and walk several blocks up M Street to the 6th ST Entrance, where the guard will give you directions. Alternatively, if you're already on the Orange/Blue line, I'd get off at Eastern Market and walk south on 8th Street about a half a mile. The Circulator picks up right at the Metro stop if you'd prefer not to walk and lets off at the 6th St Entrance (M-F). For more details about security, directions, or, God forbid, parking, visit here.