16 Oct 2020


A New Museum for Capitol Hill

Secretary of the Navy Braithwaite. Photo courtesy of the United States Navy.

One of my favorite museums in D.C. is also the one I least get to take my groups to: The National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Tucked inside the Washington Navy Yard at the southern end of Barracks Row, it lays out the 245 year history of those who have fought for our country on the high seas, in spite of it always trying to kill you. From the early wooden ships that helped defeat the British Navy in the Revolutionary War to diving bells with which Navy personnel plumbed the depths of the ocean, it is all displayed here in an engaging – if slightly dated – manner. It has fulfilled this task since 1963, though museums have been part of the Navy Yard since the Civil War.

Even its location is historic: The Navy Yard has its origins even before Washington became the federal capital in 1800, and the building it is housed in was built as a gun factory, one of the yard’s principal missions throughout the 20th century.

Unfortunately, its location is also its weak spot. In order to get into the Navy Yard, you need to request permission, and organizing this for a bus group is no small feat.

There has long been talk of doing something about this, and it looks as if – finally – something will happen. On October 13, Secretary of the Navy Braithwaite announced that there will be a new museum built, located not in the old gun shop, but instead in a brand new, purpose-built building just outside the present perimeter of the Navy Yard, making it accessible for all. (Click here to read our tweets about the announcement.) While the final location has yet to be determined, it will be located on land that historically belonged to the Navy Yard and that is currently earmarked for other use. The renderings show it just inside what used to be the brick wall surrounding the Navy Yard.

Retired Rear Admiral Cox, director of Naval History and Heritage Command, had this to say: “The Washington Navy Yard has been an integral member of the Capitol Hill community since 1799. Capitol Hill residents helped build the facility two hundred years ago, they worked on the Yard one hundred years ago and today, the preferred site for the new National Museum for the US Navy is near the Washington Navy Yard.”

While the mission – to tell the story of the Navy – remains unchanged, one addition promises to make the new facility of great interest to the Capitol Hill neighborhood: To tell not only the story of the Navy, but also of the Washington Navy Yard and its place, and importance to, the surrounding community.

Since Navy Yard Hill is the first neighborhood in the city of Washington, it deserves to be properly explained in the new museum. In doing this, the museum plans to tell the stories of not only those men and women, white and African American, who built and worked in the Navy Yard, but also their impact on the schools, churches, and masonic lodges surrounding the yard.

Rendering of the new museum, courtesy of Navy.mil

Meanwhile, the history of the Navy Yard itself will extend beyond the simple explanation of which material was produced and used there, but look at how the community used the wharf for private purposes, or was there to take part in historic moments.

But for now, it is all still in the future. While planning for this new venture begins now, with a groundbreaking scheduled for 2023, the opening is not until five years from now. As Cox said, “I’m looking forward to welcoming the Capitol Hill community to the new museum when it opens on the Navy’s 250th birthday in 2025.”

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