The Navy is nearing an agreement with a developer to swap land parcels in the District of Columbia and make way for a new National Museum of the United States Navy outside the fences of the Washington Navy Yard, those involved with the relocation efforts said.
Speaking online at the 94th annual meeting of the Naval Historical Foundation, Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite pledged to “re-invigorate the National Museum of the United States Navy,” which now attracts slightly more than 100,000 visitors annually.
Retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, estimated that a new museum outside the Navy Yard fences and within a six-minute walk of the region’s Metro rail system could draw up to 2 million visitors annually to tell the sea service’s story to the general public.
Public access to the Navy Yard was reduced wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, causing museum attendance to drop. Following the 2013 mass shooting at the Navy Yard, access by the public became even more restricted. Visits to the museum needed pre-arrival approval in most cases, further cutting the number of visits to its collections.
Cox said, “we’re not that far from saying we’ve got the land.” He said the idea, originally endorsed by former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, was to trade the museum’s current land along the Anacostia River for the land the Navy was eyeing for the new museum location, after Congress balked at buying property nearby the Navy Yard that the service once owned.
Historian Craig Symonds, who delivered the foundation’s keynote lecture, said it was a shame to keep “a great national treasure … locked behind barred doors.” Cox acknowledged most museum visitors hold Controlled Access Cards or come as members of Honor Flight tours of the capital for veterans.
Smiling during this part of the presentation, Cox said, “then I got to find someone to raise the money” to build a campus, not a single building museum. The Marine Corps model would be the one followed and allow the museum to open in phases.
“The Army did [the fund-raising] at once, but it took them 15 years to do it.” The National Museum of the United States Army located near Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, was scheduled to open to the public this month, but the ceremonies have been postponed because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Both the Marine Corps and Army Museum used historical foundations to raise funds to build the facilities that could not be done with government money. In addition, the foundations support volunteer and educational programs at the facilities.
Like the Army and Marine Corps museums, the pandemic has put the Navy museum system and archives “in a degraded mode,” closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Cox found a bright spot in the command’s social media platforms, which “are going like gangbusters.”
Noting that he was one of the first Navy officials to meet with Braithwaite after he took office on May 29, Cox said, “this [national museum project] is moving forward.”
Likewise, overhauling USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine which now serves as a museum operations ship in Connecticut, “is on track.” Cox expects it to go into a dry dock for repairs in 2022.
For the center and the foundation, Braithwaite said, “you have a strong advocate in me.”