There are many reasons we study history and seek out our past. There is the famous, and frequently paraphrased, quote from philosopher George Santayana that, “those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” Besides using our past mistakes to make more intelligent decisions in the future, history helps us to understand where we came from, why things change, who we are, and why others are the way they may be.
Access to history isn’t limited to the classroom or the minds of professional researchers. Society has made the opportunity to study our past a cultural priority and accessible to all through the establishment of museums. Whether for education or entertainment, we all can seek out the artifacts and stories associated with our past in museums dedicated to preserving history.
The United States Naval Academy (USNA) is itself a piece of history. Listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, there is plenty of history to visit and experience throughout the Yard. And, within its boundaries lies the USNA Museum. Welcoming over 100,000 visitors annually from all around the world, the USNA History Museum’s exhibits focus on the history of seapower, the development of the US Navy, and the role of the Naval Academy in producing highly capable officers.
Located in Preble Hall, the museum’s displays and collection of artifacts span two floors, bringing to life the stories of the men and women who have served at sea. Some objects on display are recognizable, while some may require interpretation to understand the significance, but each has a tale to share.
While not unusual to see female officers serving in today’s Navy, the introduction of women into all areas of Naval service was arduous. To help tell the history of the women who’ve served in the US Navy, the USNA Museum displays a female officer’s uniform. It is significant in that many museums display uniforms associated with a specific person. Displaying a woman’s uniform without attribution allows it to represent the story of all women who have come before, and blazed the trail for the women who continue to serve today.
Long before GPS satellites orbited the earth, celestial navigation was the primary means of completing ocean transits. This form of navigation requires precisely measuring the angles between astronomical objects and the horizon. To assist in taking these measurements, John Hadley and Thomas Godfrey invented an instrument to take sights and shoot angles called the sextant. The sextant on display at the museum comes from the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 during the US Navy’s earliest years.
Museums must take great care when handling and displaying fragile artifacts. Temperature, humidity, and light all take their toll on objects if conditions are not monitored and controlled. Fabrics especially can be vulnerable to deterioration if not properly cared for. It’s one reason why objects like the museum’s display of the Dont Give Up the Ship flag are so special. Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag and unofficial motto of the Navy, this original flag bears this famous Navy saying which has inspired generations of sailors. More recent versions of the flag use a blue background, but conservation efforts discovered blue material was only added to the original as a form of preservation. Interestingly, both the original and modern versions of this battle flag lack an apostrophe.
Items of weaponry are popular artifacts in many museums. The USNA Museum displays a knife once belonging to Stephen Decatur, a Naval Officer who served during the American Revolution. This specific knife was known as a dirk, worn by Midshipmen and used to fight off those attempting to board sailing vessels.
A historic monument outside the walls of the USNA Museum, but still rich in significance, is the Herndon Monument. Originally erected as a memorial to the Navy’s early heroic leaders, the Herndon Monument has symbolic meaning to Midshipmen. At the end of their first year, plebes work together to climb the greased monument and replace a dixie-cup hat with a combination cover, signifying the end of plebe year.
To learn more about these USNA Museum artifacts and others, A History of the Navy in 100 Objects is a podcast and video series exploring the Navy’s history.