Washington is known for its wealth of museums and cultural offerings, providing educational and recreational opportunities to visitors and residents alike. With so many history, science, and art museums to choose from, it can be easy to overlook institutions off the beaten path. One such is the National Museum of the US Navy (NMUSN), located here in Capitol Hill at the Navy Yard. The NMUSN is also home to the Cold War Gallery, which provides a comprehensive understanding of the role of the Navy in the defining conflict of the later 20th century.
Telling the Navy’s Story
Established in 1961 and opened to the public in 1963 in Building 76 in the Navy Yard, the NMUSN is one of 14 museums maintained by the Navy to share its history and celebrate its accomplishments. It is the Navy’s flagship museum, home to a large permanent collection of artifacts as well as temporary exhibits. The museum is currently honoring the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor with the exhibit “Valor in the Pacific,” and recently extended an exhibition of artwork by Tom Freeman, who paints scenes from naval history.
“The museum collects, preserves, displays, and interprets historic naval artifacts and artwork for the information, education, and inspiration of naval personnel and the general public,” says museum director Jim Bruns, who oversees both the NMUSN and the Cold War Gallery. The collection moved several times as it continued to grow, opening in Building 76 in 1963.
The Navy Yard’s role in preserving and sharing the Navy’s history stretches back to the early 19th century, when the first commandant, Thomas Tingey, began collecting key items. What began with a French gun cast in 1793 expanded quickly, and by 1865 a building was devoted to storing the artifacts. The Museum of Naval Relics and Weapons, as it was then called, was one of the first federal museums in the country and a popular destination for visitors to the city.
The NMUSN is a priceless resource for understanding the way the Navy has shaped the history of the United States, and how technology has changed the way we respond to threats. The museum also illuminates how the Navy aids US interests, many of which visitors may not be familiar with. “There are several important takeaways,” Bruns says. “Among them is that America’s sailors are the best trained in the world. Another is that America’s Navy is always at the cutting edge. And another is that our nation is a maritime nation which relies on the Navy to keep the sea lanes open for American commerce.”
The Cold War at Sea
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was the defining conflict of the later 20th century. Taking place between 1947 and 1991, it shaped international politics and domestic policy, and in many ways continues to do so. The conflict was named for the lack of largescale “hot” or direct fighting between the United States and the Soviet Union, a fact that can obscure the important role of the military, including the Navy.
“Many Americans, especially the youngest, have little understanding of the contributions made by the Navy’s Cold War veterans,” Bruns says. Bridging that knowledge gap is a core goal of the Cold War Gallery. Opened in 2011 as an annex to the NMUSN, the gallery features displays of Cold War-era technology, information on the role of the Navy in the conflict, and interactive exhibits. These offerings and others weave a complex political and military history that is accessible for visitors. But the gallery is focused on more than just conflict.
“There were multiple facets to the Cold War – the side that reflected crisis and confrontation, the side which was covert, and the side that was humanitarian,” Bruns says. “The Cold War Gallery examines all three facets. All too often visitors expect to learn only about crisis and confrontation.”
The Cold War Gallery was also established to honor a group of servicemen and women that the Navy hopes to keep from being overlooked. Bruns describes their story as “inspiring but little-understood,” perhaps due in part to the complex role the Navy played in the conflict. While the Navy engaged in a number of confrontations with Soviet and Communist forces at sea, they were also on the forefront of deterrence, both by maintaining technological supremacy and ensuring adherence to maritime rules of engagement.
Capitol Hill has always had a close relationship with the military, due in part to the Marine Barracks and the Navy Yard. For Bruns, this highlights the importance of the NMUSN and Cold War Gallery in helping the neighborhood understand its own history and the history of some of its residents. “Cold War sailors are your maturing neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and co-workers,” he explains. “Without asking, many of your readers may never know the role that these sailors played in winning the Cold War.”
The National Museum of the US Navy and the Cold War Gallery are located in Building 76 at the Navy Yard. Both are open to the public on weekdays, and admission is free. More information can be found at www.history.navy.mil.
Bridey Heing is a freelance journalist and book critic living on Capitol Hill. Her writing has been published by The Daily Beast, The Economist, The Times Literary Supplement, and others. You can find her on Twitter @brideyheing.