Two decades ago, I traveled to Portsmouth, England, to visit the Royal Navy Museum and HMS Victory. Both were operated by the Royal Navy with civil servants working in the museum and sailors manning the ship. I also visited the recently reconstructed HMS Warrior and viewed the Mary Rose, a Tudor period warship that launched in 1510 and capsized in 1545. Rediscovered in the 1970s, the Mary Rose was undergoing conservation work. Both she and Warrior are operated by independent trusts not affiliated with the Royal Navy—like in the United States, where most of our historic naval ships are displayed in various locations around the nation.
The bicentennial of Trafalgar provided the British an impetus to review their naval heritage infrastructure, and in 2009, a reorganized National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) came into being. An additional trust was sent up raise to funds for the Victory. While Mary Rose and Warrior continue to be maintained by independent trusts, the whole visitor experience to Portsmouth eventually would be managed by the NMRN. The colocation of the NMRN with the Royal Navy’s largest homeport provides the navy with tremendous heritage assets to instill in its sailors a strong grounding in the service’s customs and traditions. With the homeporting of Great Britain’s newest aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth, thousands more Royal Navy sailors will have easy access to their heritage.
In contrast, the National Museum of the United States Navy (Navy Museum), located at the Washington Navy Yard, is facing a dilemma. Visitor access requirements put in place since the 9/11 terrorist attacks make it difficult for tourists to visit the current facility. The main museum building is not only within the fence line, but also inside the Navy Yard’s main vehicle artery. For those who come, the visitor experience is hampered by a layout with three content areas: the main museum in building 76; the Cold War Gallery in building 70; and the outdoor artifact displays in Willard Park. Another problem is the need for more floor space. With the Cold War Gallery filling out building 70, where is the 21st-century story going to be told?
Given security concerns, there have been proposals over the past decade to relocate the museum off the Navy Yard. Such a move requires a nine-figure investment from the private sector support to a build and to facilitate the design, fabrication, and installation of new exhibits and the transfer of current artifacts and museum support infrastructure.
Lieutenant Commander Todd D. Tavolazzi wrote in the January 2011 Proceedings that “Naval Station Norfolk, touted as the largest naval base in the world, has no single place where sailors can go to acquaint themselves with their service’s heritage or appreciate its heroes many sacrifices.” A possible solution to this problem could be to reinvent Nauticus as the new home of the National Museum of the United States Navy. The Nauticus facility is shovel-ready to facilitate exhibits covering the entire history of the U.S. Navy. The Naval History and Heritage Command already has a relationship with Nauticus/Wisconsin (BB-64) with the colocation of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. In this case, negotiations would center on expanding the footprint. With waterfront space available, potential exists to expand the ship collection with a retiring Arleigh Burke-class destroyer or to negotiate the acquisition of Constellation from Baltimore, now that she has been determined to have been a sloop-of-war built in Norfolk in the 1850s.
The nonprofit Nauticus organization still would manage the Wisconsin and any additional warships and collect entrance fees that will be applied toward long-term preservation. The Nauticus nonprofit also would generate income from store sales and rental to support maintenance staff and infrastructure. The Navy Museum could have its own foundation to solicit corporate funding to update exhibits and support educational programs. There is a small Hampton Roads Naval Museum Foundation already in existence that could grow into this expanded role.
Though Norfolk hardly has the same tourist throughput as the nation’s capital, the Tidewater region is a major vacation destination that hosts the largest concentrations of sailors in the nation. Furthermore, there is an overseas template in existence that illustrates a move of the museum from this nation’s capital could be a strategically brilliant course of action.
With the need to instill in our sailors greater pride in their history and heritage, moving the museum to Norfolk and repurposing the current facilities in Washington, DC, makes sense.
Commander Winkler is a retired Navy Reserve officer who earned his doctorate from American University in 1998. His updated dissertation on "Incidents at Sea" is being published next month by the Naval Institute Press.