Hands-On History Lessons at the Navy Museum

The historic Navy museum welcomes visitors to explore its many unique exhibits.

Sunlight streams down from skylights onto ship models, guns and artifacts in the 123-year-old building that now serves as the US Navy Museum. The building, located at 736 Sicard Ave., SE in the Navy Yard, is filled with history. Small groups of visitors gather around artifacts, some older than the building itself. 

James Rentfrow, Director of the National Museum of the US Navy and the NMUSN Campus Program Office, is stopped by a group taken aback by a massive missile in the entrance of the museum’s cold war gallery. Instantly, Rentfrow launches into vivid description that reveals his wealth of knowledge to the awestruck visitors. 


Stepping into the US Navy Museum is like stepping back in time. The building itself, a former gun factory, is now used to display ship models, guns and other artifacts from the Revolutionary War through World War Two. The museum showcases of the history of the US Navy, and a nearby building features two new exhibits: a cold war gallery and displays on the Vietnam and Korean wars.

The Navy has had a museum on its campus for over 150 years and has used the space to educate and commemorate special events such as changes of command, promotions and retirement. 

The museum also features several different interactive exhibits such as guns that children can sit on. Rentfrow emphasized the importance of interactive displays and exhibits in museums, especially as COVID restrictions ease around the District. 

“Something we have to keep in mind in the new museum is how much the kids enjoy these artifacts that they can interact with, and touch and climb on.” 

While the museum is sure to provide an interesting and educational experience for all who visit, it’s a bit difficult to access. Guests must first officially enter the military base in order to get access to the museum, a process complicated by security measures. All visitors must check in at the Visitor Control Center (VCC) at the primary access gate (1022 O Street SE) which is open daily 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. 

A More Accessible New Space 

The museum is beginning preparations to move to a location significantly more accessible to the public outside the gates of the military base. The proposed 240,000 square ft. complex will combine both of the current museums and include conference center space. The plans also include office and retail spaces just outside the museum. The new museum will not require individuals to officially enter the military base and, like the Smithsonian, plans to provide free admission. 

Currently, the proposed space is occupied by a parking lot and a trapeze school. Rentfrow is excited about the potential of the space noting that it provides an opportunity to expand exhibits and makes it easier for community members to visit the museum. 

Despite the cumbersome process needed to access the museum now, he is not concerned about security at the new location after closely following the opening of the Army and Marine museums.

“We certainly will have a security posture, we’ll have a dedicated security force and we’re busy right now looking at exactly what that’s going to look like and how it will be done,” Rentfrow said. “But we feel based on the Army’s experience and the Marine’s experience at Quantico that it’s very manageable.”

One of the other things he hopes to include in the new space is a more focused exhibit on the Vietnam war. He said he hopes to honor the veterans who will visit with a meaningful display, Rentfrow said.

“The World War II generation will be gone when I open the new building,” Rentfrow said. “Who are the veterans that are going to be coming into the building? It’s going to be Vietnam veterans, so what can we do to do justice to and really tell their story, that’s what my staff is really focused on.” 

Rentfrow explained that while there is not an official timeline for the opening yet, he hopes to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Navy in 2025 with a commemorative ceremony with at least the retail and office space complete and hopes to “put a shovel in the ground” at the site of the new museum. 

While many of the reopening details remain uncertain, Rentfrow hopes to keep the current museum open to visitors for the next 24 to 36 months. The museum and associated galleries are open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, and tickets are not required. Masks are no longer required for visitors inside the museum or on the base. 

Sarah Payne is a general assignment reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com.