Art Works Blog

Blue Star Museum Spotlight on Hampton Roads Naval Museum

Today we're visiting the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk, Virginia to celebrate our seventh year of Blue Star Museums, which offers free admission to participating museums for active-duty military servicemembers and their families. The program, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, is a collaboration among the NEA, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and museums across the U.S. It's fitting that we're holding this year's launch event at HRNM as, according to museum director Elizabeth Pouillot, "...if you understand the history of the Navy and Hampton Roads you understand Navy history, because Norfolk and this region is the Navy's capital." As Pouillot shared with us in a telephone interview, the museum showcases a number of historic objects, models of historic Navy vessels, and significant Naval-themed paintings, alongside a full calendar of family-friendly activities. Keep reading to learn more about what you can see at the museum, including some of Pouillot's favorite artifacts and the stories of how they ended up at the museum. 

19th-century cannon on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum

This 18-pounder cannon is on display in the museum's War of 1812 gallery. The gun was made in England in 1798 and is an excellent example of the type of weapon used by not only the U.S. Navy, but the world's navies.

NEA: What do you think makes Hampton Roads Naval Museum unique?

ELIZABETH POULLIOT: We tell the story of the U.S. Navy and Hampton Roads from its very beginning. It is a simple story, but it's a big story. Whether it is a uniform or even something as simple as a logbook, each object forms the foundation of [understanding] life in the Navy today and the Navy the way it was from its inception in 1775. That’s why I think our museum is so special; we bring an immediacy to people. The recollections of the sailors today in many ways are the same from time immemorial. So those pieces that we have on display, we put them out there to tell the sailors' story and what sailors thought was important to them.

We think the story here is such that if you understand the history of the Navy and Hampton Roads you understand Navy history, because Norfolk and this region is the Navy's capital. This is a museum without walls. We are accessible to the community, and for those that can't get here physically, we have a blog, and we try to do a number of [off-site] programs. We’ve been very intent upon catering to our visitors and knowing who our visitors are. We go out to all the schools in Hampton Roads and have programs that we can bring to a class.

NEA: What types of artifacts will visitors see at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum?

POULLIOT: We have beautiful prints and artwork. Visitors can also come and see an actual made-to-scale model of a vessel, and we have some splendid models. They're absolutely beautiful works of art in themselves. We also have underwater archeology items. There are [items from] two Civil War shipwrecks, and those items have been preserved. You can read the artifacts themselves and learn something about what life was like.

a 19th-century military shell jacket with brass buttons

This is a U.S. Navy enlisted sailor's uniform that is currently on display in the museum's Age of Sail gallery. The coat is called a shell jacket, which was a common military uniform item for land and sea forces. This particular coat dates to 1852. U.S. Navy uniforms like this are quite rare and it is thought that this jacket is one of only about five that have survived. The buttons on the jacket have an eagle holding a fouled anchor, which was the common emblem of American sea service uniforms. Image courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum

NEA: Do you have favorites in the collection?

POULLIOT: I have several favorite items. How I can tell a favorite item is when I get goosebumps, and most of those tell a human story. For example, we have a pre-Civil War jacket. There are so few of those jackets in existence that the Smithsonian doesn't have one. There were two ladies that were sisters, and they had it in their attic, so it [belonged to] one of their ancestors…. It had not been seen for probably a couple hundred years ago. It’s artifacts that have an immediate connection with a past figure that get me tingly like that.

Another artifact that is my favorite [came from] an older gentleman who came in and said, "I've come to give you something if you would like it." I said, "What is that?" And he said "It's a flag." You think, "How many flags does your museum need?" I said "Oh, okay, sir. Where is this flag from?" He goes, "The Maine." I said "Which Maine would that one be?" He said, "The Maine that started the Spanish-American War." When the ship sank in Santiago Harbor, a Navy dive team went down [and one of the divers] was one of his relatives.

Another artifact is a sailor's shoe. One of our Civil War shipwrecks is really a grave site. More than 100 men went down with that ship, and so their bodies are still there. When the ship sank the shoe was left there. When you see Civil War uniforms, you're not going to see the shoes, because the soldiers and the sailors wore them out. [It’s] very hard to find any type of original footwear during that period of time. This was saved by falling into the bottom of the river, and then the mud covered it, and it did not oxidize.

a preserved Civil War-era shoe of the type worn by sailors

This shoe is one of many artifacts on display in the museum's CSS Florida exhibit. The museum is the primary storage facility for artifacts from the Civil War ships, CSS Florida and USS Cumberland. Image courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum

NEA: What's your favorite museum—other than the Hampton Roads Naval Museum?

POULLIOT: My favorite museum type is one that shows the real stuff of history. All of the museums that I enjoy so much are those where you get an up-close and personal contact with the past. For example, in Richmond, their art museum there, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, you go up there, and it's phenomenal. The Chrysler Museumwhat a great facility where, again, you can just immerse yourself and talk about significant topics I recently went to a lecture there, and it was talking about what ISIS is doing with works of history in these other countries and the fact that the museum has some of those collections. So there's a safeguarding role and mission that all of us do because we want to leave our museums intact and to share with the future generations.

a wooden model of the Spanish-American War-era ship the USS Maine

This is the builder's model for the second-class battleship USS Maine, currently on display in the museum's Spanish-American War gallery. The Norfolk-based battleship is famous because it exploded on February 14, 1898, an event that led the United States to declare war on Spain. The term "builder's model" means that the shipyard designers actually built the model as a means of demonstrating the ship's capabilities to naval officers, elected officials, and anyone else responsible for authorizing the ship's construction. A large 3-D model allowed for close-up inspection and detailed critique of a ship before workers even laid the ship's keel. Image courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum

NEA: Can you talk about why you think a program like Blue Star Museums is important for active-duty military families?

POULLIOT: Our museum is free for the military so they know their history, where they come from, and what they're contributing. It is an opportunity for other Americans to interact with our military and find out a bit more. As a military brat myself, [I know] when your dad goes away for three to six months, it changes your whole life, and there are sacrifices that our military give. This is a way that museums across this country can highlight other Americans for their service and say, "We think you're special enough that we want you to enjoy your history, and here it is. Let's see what we can do to make it engaging and fun and relevant" Museums are very giving institutions. That's one of the reasons I got into public history, because there is an air of excitement about it, and we want to share that with a population that does undertake sacrifice for our nation.

Visit our Blue Star Museums map to find a participating museum near you, and to learn more about the program. Also, check out our Pinterest board featuring images from the collections at Hampton Roads Naval Musuem. 

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