Keeping Floating Museums Afloat

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

To Be or Not to Be

Let’s begin our voyage of discovery by considering the merits of preserving ships as museums. We’ll first accept as axiomatic that museums in general are a good thing. They have existed for as long as there’s been this thing we call civilization. While one usually associates museums with art and history, the existence of such things as the Kentucky Fried Chicken Museum in Corbin, Kentucky; the Stoogeum in Amble, Pennsylvania (which indeed features artifacts connected to Larry, Moe, and Curly); the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, Japan; and the Marikina City Footwear Museum in Manila (yes, the nucleus of that one is Imelda Marcos’ infamous collection) proves that museums do not only apply to the high of brow.

If we accept that—even when their focus is on something as offbeat as three cinematic clowns or a collection of cups of noodles—museums are keepers of the cultural flame, we can then refine our inquiry to the more specific question of museum ships.

On the plus side of the ledger, it’s certainly safe to assess them as unique. What sets them apart from most other museums is an immersion factor; rather than viewing a subject from without (as displays or artifacts gathered together in a building and put on exhibit), we’re permitted to view the subject from within, to immerse ourselves in the object we have come to explore in a way that is particularly experiential and interactive.

You can feel the chill that pervades a below-the-waterline magazine, or smell the unique tang of tarred lines, or experience the claustrophobic confines of a berthing compartment or a galley on a submarine. Standing on steel or wooden decks, climbing ladders to the bridge, or sitting in the bucket seat once used by an antiaircraft gunner gives you a greater sense of the shipboard experience than could ever be obtained while peering into a display case or watching a specialized video. Some of these floating museums have sleepover programs that extend the experience well beyond the typical school field trip to a local gallery and provide an extended sensory experience that must be experienced to fully value.

On the negative side of the ledger, the biggest problem is money. Rarely do other factors obviate the creation of a ship museum, although antiwar feelings among influential community members have apparently prevented, or at least hindered, the creation of naval ship museums in some instances. That rather isolated factor notwithstanding, ships may be described in a wide variety of ways but never as inexpensive. Their need to exist in the naturally hostile environment that water presents to wood and metal makes preservation a constant (and expensive) challenge. Although they no longer need the teeming humanity of a full crew, and most have charms capable of enticing volunteers, museum ships nonetheless must be administered, cared for, and promoted by those very expensive entities—full-time employees.

Accepting that a museum ship is at least as valuable as one that preserves Imelda’s podiatric extravagances, and conceding that they cannot survive without a considerable source of money, the next step is to determine how these two considerations can best be merged, to possibly formulate a strategy for success. To achieve this, let’s use a case-study approach, juxtaposing two contrasting examples in hopes of discerning some instructive patterns.

The Olympia Dilemma

Because she’s in the news and is by all accounts in extremis, let’s begin with the Olympia . Residing at the Independence Seaport Museum on the Delaware River in Philadelphia since 1996, the cruiser Olympia is currently in critical danger of succumbing to the ravages of nature—corrosion along her waterline and even to her keel is in an advanced stage—such that experts predict she’ll likely fall apart within the next three to five years if preventive measures aren’t taken.

Those who wish to save her bring some compelling arguments to the table. There’s a heritage factor in that she‘s been designated an official National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior, whose website defines these landmarks as “nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.” There’s a uniqueness factor in that she’s the only surviving warship from the Spanish-American War, one of the oldest steel-hulled warships afloat, and the only existing example of those hybrid American naval ships that made the cautious transition from sail to steam by having both canvas-bearing masts and coal-powered engines.

She’s a stunning example of the age of empires, with her luxurious furnishings (including a piano, bathtubs, and a china cabinet in the admiral’s cabin) and many superfluous yet stunning decorative embellishments (ornately carved eagles, hand-painted federal shields, and the like). Her two triple-expansion engines were driven by three coal-fired boilers and have been designated Historic Engineering Landmarks.

And she bears an impressive history, famous for serving as Commodore George Dewey’s flagship in his resounding victory in Manila Bay (see Naval History , February 2011, p. 32) and having the honor of bringing home the Unknown Soldier for interment at Arlington National Cemetery after World War I.

I am unaware that anyone is actively trying to prevent the preservation of the Olympia , so our attention is drawn to the usual problem—money. Experts believe that a lifesaving overhaul will cost somewhere in the range of $20 million. More than $5 million spent in upkeep since her arrival in Philadelphia hasn’t been sufficient, and an unfortunate embezzling scandal to the tune of $1.5 million hasn’t helped the situation, either fiscally or spiritually. It’s not hard to imagine a dark cloud hanging over the efforts to keep her afloat in Philadelphia.

Another debilitating factor is that over the years the number of visitors she’s received hasn’t generated the revenue necessary to cover the costs of preventive maintenance, much less the far greater costs now needed for resuscitation. There are some generic reasons for this that I shall go into later.

As a consequence of this unfortunate situation, the caretakers of this important but expensive artifact have offered the Olympia up for adoption. Interested parties have been invited to submit a Transfer Application (TAPP)—a several-phase operation that begins on 1 September 2011 with the submission of a letter of intent and executive summary.

Polar Opposite

Contrast the Olympia with what the Boston Globe calls the “gold standard” of museum ships. Among the many attractions available in San Diego, notes Fodor’s Travel Guide , the aircraft carrier Midway is “a wildly popular stop,” and rates the Midway as the number-one area attraction (of 184!) with participant reviews that consistently say things such as “great experience,” “cool and interesting,” “a must-see,” and “impressive site, lots of stairs” (of course, this last visitor would have said “ladders” if he/she had been paying closer attention on the tour, but this comment, like so many others, reflects a genuine enthusiasm for the experience). Last year, the Midway had nearly 900,000 visitors and she’s on track to exceed that number in 2011.

Why is it that the Midway is so successful and the Olympia is in such jeopardy? It’s tempting to compare their historical significance; after all, one might surmise (unhappily) that the average American is still aware of World War II and the Cold War, but far fewer have any real knowledge (much less interest) in the Spanish-American War. Indeed, a local Philadelphia blog on the subject is laced with comments to this effect. But the Midway ’s marketing director, Scott McGaugh, reports that most visitors to the big carrier have little preconceived interest in the ship’s history, that they come aboard more interested in the ship herself. (One hopes that they leave with a greater appreciation of the ship’s historical importance, but that’s a topic for another discussion.)

McGaugh’s observation that a ship’s history is not as relevant as historians would like to believe is of course based on his experience, and while it deserves credibility, I don’t believe that it completely obviates the historical factor. I maintain that one should take this into consideration when making hard decisions regarding the selection of future museum ships, particularly when several candidates are vying for only one opportunity at life.

For example, I’ve wrestled with the problem of the Saratoga (CV-60) for many years. There was a concerted effort to save her from oblivion and, on one hand, I was madly cheering for a favorable outcome, since some of my happiest days were spent conning her through Mediterranean and Atlantic waters (and in more recent years, I have never gone to Newport without paying her a visit and saluting her). The battle to save the Saratoga has been lost, and while I treasure my memories of her, I must confess (forgive me, shipmates) that I often wondered if there were not other ships more deserving of an afterlife.

Sara has much to be proud of in her long history of service, but she’s only one of many deserving carriers that might serve equally as well as a keeper of the posterity flame. By contrast, the endangered Olympia is such a unique ship that her demise would be a national travesty.

But if we accept the cold calculus of the matter and—crediting Scott McGaugh with more relevant knowledge than I bring to the table—must relegate the historical factor to lesser status, then what other factors should we consider? An enlightening discussion with McGaugh reveals a number of factors, and I’ll take the liberty of converting his insights to three familiar sayings that in this context can be elevated from cliché status to axiomatic: (1) location, location, location; (2) red sky at night, sailor’s delight; and (3) size matters.

Location, Location, Location: Berthed in San Diego, the Midway is situated in one of the top tourist spots in the nation. Just as important, she’s in the heart of the tourist district, surrounded by other maritime attractions and in plain sight and easy walking distance of a huge convention center and many of the major hotels that serve the tourist traffic. Compare that to another California-based museum aircraft carrier, the Hornet , which is berthed in a less accessible location at Alameda and consequently has far fewer visitors each year.

While the Olympia is also located in a city that enjoys a great deal of visitor traffic, her specific location is somewhat less central to the great flow of tourists who regularly visit Philadelphia. And while an aircraft carrier is a good symbiotic fit to a city that has a great maritime flavor, a turn-of-the-previous-century cruiser with imperialist trappings is less congruent with a city whose main claim to fame is the founding of the nation.

Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight: You don’t have to spend very many days and nights in San Diego to realize that there are countless rosy sunsets to silhouette the big carrier and make a promise of good weather on the morrow. This translates to many days when the elements serve to entice rather than discourage visits by those masses who wear the ubiquitous uniform of T-shirts and shorts. By contrast, Philadelphia’s weather is hospitable for far fewer days of the year, which of course translates into fewer days that tourists are inclined to visit a cruiser on the Delaware River front.

Size Matters: The size factor is one I hadn’t properly considered until my talk with Scott McGaugh. I’d always assumed smaller ships would present fewer maintenance challenges—the paint required for an aircraft carrier would be enough to float a destroyer—and smaller ships would by definition require a smaller staff to keep the museum running. While these things are certainly true, the visitor-capacity factor outweighs such considerations by a significant margin. In order for a museum ship to meet her significant fiscal needs (on her own, without outside support) she must be able to accommodate a large enough volume of ticket-buying visitors. This makes it difficult for a ship of the Olympia ’s size to physically compete with a leviathan such as the Midway, whose great expanses of flight and hangar decks, coupled with literally miles of passageways, allow her to entertain many times the number of credit-card–carrying visitors in a given day. And when one multiplies those given days by the weather factor, it becomes clear why the carrier is the winner when compared with the cruiser.

The numbers problem can be somewhat alleviated if several smaller vessels can be clustered together. It’s even better if smaller vessels can be clustered with a larger ship (as is the case with Patriots Point near Charleston, South Carolina, where the carrier Yorktown is joined by a destroyer and a submarine, as well as by a number of other related attractions).

Other revenue-generating means can be brought to bear, such as hosting corporate events (something for which a hangar deck is particularly well-suited) or providing historical backdrops for Hollywood ventures. The former can be lucrative but must be considered as supplemental to the more reliable, steady-flowing ticket sales. The latter must be relegated to the same category as winning the lottery: Each is certainly possible, but neither can be part of a serious business plan.

The caveat “on her own, without outside support” is important. Ships can survive without pulling their own displacement through ticket sales alone. Governmental or philanthropic assistance can (and in some cases should ) offset the location, weather, and size factors. Except in very dire fiscal circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine the Navy failing to provide what is needed to keep the Constitution afloat and shipshape; one can almost as readily see the Washington Monument toppling over after years of neglect as envisioning Old Ironsides allowed to sink at her moorings. However, once a ship is donated for museum purposes, she’s no longer eligible for governmental fiscal support, so she must rely entirely on other sources.

An obvious (but by no means simple and certainly not guaranteed) solution is philanthropy. The aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City has been the beneficiary of philanthropic assistance, as have many other museum ships. The question that must be asked is which ships are worthy of additional support in order to allow them to survive.

Unfortunately, that is not easily answered. It’s something that must be approached on a case basis, subject to the vicissitudes of politics, the timing of economic sine curves, the vacillations of public attitudes, and the whims of wealthy patrons. One need only look at the roster of ships that survive as museums compared with the absence of the famous World War II carrier Enterprise to see at least some of the problem at hand. It’s not an exact science, nor will it always be entirely rational.

World’s Third Largest Navy

No discussion of museum ships would be complete without acknowledging the important work of the Historic Naval Ships Association (HNSA). Just as squadrons and fleets have always been more effective in battle than are single units, HNSA gives the individual ships strength in numbers, providing a network where problems can be solved and ideas shared, as well as serve as a single representative voice when needed. With 175 member vessels (all naval) in 12 nations, HNSA calls itself the “world’s third largest navy.” This claim to fame can be further enhanced by acknowledging that it’s unquestionably the most diverse “navy” in the world, with a great assortment of battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, amphibs, patrol craft, early ironclads, sailing ships of many types, and a variety of experimental craft (to name a few).

HNSA’s tenets—formed in the wardroom of the battleship North Carolina in 1966—are “to honor the men and women who joined the naval service of their nation; to educate the public, both young and old about the great naval heritage of their nation; and to inspire men and women to serve their country.” Their goal is to “keep these ships alive” both literally and figuratively.

Discussions with Jeffrey Nilsson, HNSA’s executive director, revealed something I hadn’t previously considered. While I emphasized the importance of the host city in providing a bank of visitors, the reverse is also potentially true and isn’t lost on some city officials. A museum ship can serve to bring visitors to a city that might not have come without it. If not the sole reason for a visit, it can sweeten the pot sufficiently to lure visitors who, of course, enhance the local economy in other significant ways. Such observations prove the worth of an organization such as HNSA.

So we can conclude that museum ships are worthwhile endeavors, but we must also acknowledge that they must either be supported by governmental or philanthropic intervention or must be self-sustaining through ticket sales and other revenue-generating means. Existing museum ships will survive or succumb based on these considerations, and as we go forward, each opportunity to create a floating museum should (ideally) be considered on its own merits, certainly taking into account such things as the ship’s history and her uniqueness, but ultimately giving the most consideration to the museum’s viability. To that end, several questions should be asked and answered:

• What is the vessel’s contribution to posterity? Is she a candidate for preservation based on actual historical relevance or merely on sentimentality? Will her continued existence benefit the nation or a community in a meaningful way?

• Will government or philanthropic funds be available?

• Where will the ship be located? What’s the potential visitor pool? Is there potential for stimulus to the local economy? Is the vessel welcome? What’s the climate? Are there climatic conditions that will exacerbate the ever-present problem of preservation? Will the museum ship be able to stay open for most or all of the year?

• Is the vessel large enough to accommodate sufficient visitor traffic? Can she support other programs or events that are potentially profitable? Will she be joining other vessels or other attractions that will reduce this size requirement?

Armed with these questions, one can consider museum ships in an analytical way (though acknowledging that many of the answers will be based on educated guesswork rather than mathematical precision). These tests can be applied to existing ships such as the Olympia , and to future candidates that will continue to come forward as long as old ships are retired from service. In the case of newcomers, it’s important for would-be museums to be aware that the Navy looks very carefully at prospective ship recipients and, now more than ever, pays very close attention to their business plans, marketing studies, environmental factors, and potential impact on other museums. In other words, this is serious business for which the faint of heart (and the ill-prepared) need not apply.

One can hope that future endeavors regarding museum ships will have successful outcomes and that future generations of Americans will have these very tangible historical artifacts to remind them of that part of our heritage that we owe to the sea. And as a bonus, old sailors like me will have somewhere to go to catch a whiff of lube oil to remind us of better days long gone.

National Naval Aviation Museum

Open daily 0900–1700. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day

1750 Radford Blvd.

Pensacola, Florida 32508

Tel.: 850-452-3604

Olympia Update

With the support of the Naval Historical Foundation and other organizations, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has launched a web-based national effort to raise funds to get the Olympia some much-needed help. A new web-link enables donors to help finance the first dry-dock overhaul of the Olympia since 1945. To donate, go to Historic Naval Ships Association includes 175 museum ships throughout the United States and 12 other countries. For a full list of HNSA member vessels, visit the ship-location index at the organization’s website, .


Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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