USNA Museum gets $18 million upgrade


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Jan 30, 2007

A Welcome Renovation

2Feb09 - Dr. J. Scott Harmon surveyed the renovations being done to the Naval Academy Museum and just smiled.

"I can't believe, after all these years, this is really happening," Dr. Harmon, the museum director, said this week.

Housed in Preble Hall, which opened in 1939, the museum has been plagued for decades by wildly fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels - conditions that can destroy documents and artifacts.

"The ideal environment for a museum is 72 degrees and 45 percent" humidity to protect artifacts, Dr. Harmon said. "We had less than 24 percent sometimes in winter, and as much as 90 percent in summer - that kills artifacts."

The museum has about 50,000 artifacts, including the table from the USS Missouri at which Adm. Chester Nimitz, Naval Academy Class of 1905, signed documents accepting Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. It also has the spur John Wilkes Booth allegedly wore the night he mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln.

The museum closed in December 2007, and when it reopens after the $18 million upgrade it will add a number of displays, including a model of the Demologos, "Voice of the People." Built by Robert Fulton in 1814, it was the first steam-powered warship of any navy in the world.

The renovation has included installing a new air-handling system and moving interior walls to create exhibit areas and enlarge some existing ones.

The academy's famous ship model exhibit, for example, will be moved out of the cramped and dark basement where it was displayed, and installed in a large, bright gallery on the second floor. Meanwhile, the museum store in the basement will be larger and brighter than before.

Also, there will be several art galleries, all trimmed in wide dark wooden moldings, and a high-tech classroom for teaching midshipmen the evolution of navigation, ship building and weaponry. The revamped attic will serve as a large storage area, equipped with an array of security sensors and modern fire-suppression devices.

Citing security concerns, Dr. Harmon declined to discuss security in detail, and refused to say where artifacts are being stored during the renovation.
"You may never get here again," Dr. Harmon told visitors who were looking into the secure area.

Vali Nourmohammadi, the site manager for contractor Coakley and Williams Construction of Gaithersburg, said at least 300 people have worked on the renovation, and the project has presented the usual challenges that come with old buildings.

He said lead and asbestos required abatement. Also, Preble Hall had been expanded about 20 years after it was built, meaning workers encountered variations in construction materials and styles.

"The hardest part was trying to match the existing structure and bring together the materials to fit," as when a stairwell or elevator shaft was to be installed, he said. "We have been lucky; everything went well, even though it was (structurally) two different buildings."

The rehab is being paid with $11.5 million in federal funds. Also, 11 academy classes - 1946, 1947, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1956, 1958, 1966, 1971, 1982 and 1998 - are chipping in about $6.5 million in private money for the interior and displays.

The president of the Class of 1985, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Gordon Gerson, said his class put up about $500,000 toward this project.

"It is a showplace for the academy," Col. Gerson said. "The museum was getting old and decrepit, and it wasn't as good as it could be."

Dr. Harmon said he is looking forward to new display space, adding that the new custom-built cases will be installed in the coming weeks.

A member of the Naval Academy Class of 1964, Dr. Harmon served for 28 years as a curator in the National Park Service. He said modernizing Preble Hall will help the museum become accredited, which in turn would make it easier to borrow artifacts from other museums.

The gallery of model ships is scheduled to open in May, before Commissioning Week, he said. The rest of the museum is set to follow in August.

This will be worth seeing when it is finished. I really want to see the model ships. I am impressed with how much the USNA graduates donated to their museum. Go Navy!