Sometimes the best things are right under your nose. Or, to be more literal, about nine blocks from my house. This was the case with the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, anyway. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it before — I’ve even posted about some of their special events — but I had no idea just how cool it was until Owen and I toured it last week.
The funny thing was, it was my poor planning that prompted the visit. We had intended to go ice skating at Canal Park on his day off from school, but upon our arrival at the rink realized it didn’t open until noon on weekdays, and it was not quite 11am. So, I did some quick thinking about what else was in the Navy Yard area in southeast, and the light bulb went off: The Navy Museum.
The museum is located on the Navy base, so we drove down that way and found metered street parking nearby 9th & M Streets SE. However, it wasn’t until after we were out of the car that I read on my phone how to get on base. The visitor entrance is at 11th & O SE, so we walked there, and a guard at the front gate let us know we needed to go to the Visitor Center, located immediately to the left of the gate, to get a pass for base access. Once inside, I filled out a short form and showed ID, then was given a pass and a map. The friendly gentleman at the desk highlighted the way to the museum on the map, just a few minutes’ walk away.
En route, we passed the Navy Art Gallery, saw a few cannons outside, and caught a glimpse of the USS Barry moored nearby before arriving at the entrance, a stark white brick facade with two large anchors on either side of the doorway. And then we walked inside. (2016 Update: The USS Barry is no longer berthed at the Navy Yard.)
The Navy Museum is one of those places that makes an immediate “WOW!” impression. Large ship models encased in glass, a tall replica of the USS Constitution fighting top, striking nautical displays, big guns, and an airplane hanging from the rafters are among the spectacles on view in the long, lofty, hangar-like space.
It gets even better when you start touring the exhibits. For the most part, they go in chronological order from the front to the back of the museum, covering the American Revolution, Civil War, Forgotten Wars of the 19th Century (actual name of the exhibit) like the War of 1812 and Mexican-American War, Artic Exploration, and World Wars I and II. There are also exhibits dedicated to specific topics like submarines, navigation, and underwater exploration.
The best part is that there are interactive elements everywhere. In the submarine exhibit, one of the first we visited, you can look through periscopes for a view of the USS Barry outside; steer, push buttons, and flip switches on a real sub control panel; and learn how a sub operates through a few electronic displays. You can sit in the gun seats in the World War II area, and test your knowledge of Navy trivia on various touch screen displays around the museum. A few movies about sea battles are playing within the exhibits, including Master and Commander in the Gun Deck, which is made to look like one with low ceilings and wooden beams.
All ages can enjoy this museum — young children will love the big installations, older kids (with an interest in this kind of thing) will appreciate the history as well as the smaller displays. Owen’s favorite parts were the submarines and Arctic Explorations, where he learned about some of the first expeditions to the North Pole and viewed the actual equipment that had been used there.
What started as a way to kill time before ice skating turned out to be a pretty fantastic outing. And did I mention we practically had the place to ourselves? Yep, a true hidden gem. I know that there are some people who’d love to keep it that way, but this one is just too good not to share.
The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is located on the Navy base just off M Street in southeast. Non-military visitors must enter at 11th & O Streets SE. There is visitor parking in a garage inside the base. Be sure to bring ID with you to gain access. The museum is open daily with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Hours are 9am – 5pm Monday – Friday, and 10am – 5pm Saturday – Sunday. Admission is free, but there is a donation box near the entrance/exit with a suggested contribution of $2.