Models of the Past

by Jessica Ricks

Ship models and war exhibits at the Naval Academy Museum tell the history of the Navy with impeccable detail.

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The Naval Academy Museum has more than 60,000 items in its collection. About 1,400 are on display at any one time. 

“Everything here is for the country,” says Museum Director Claude Berube. “The U.S. Navy has been in existence for more than 200 years. The museum provides a foundation for the appreciation of the Navy’s historical role.”

The History of the Navy exhibit displays artifacts and details important figures and battles from the Navy’s storied history including John Paul Jones’s sword, models of the Merrimack and Monitor, and the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag from 1813. A display about the signing of the Japanese surrender treaty from World War II includes the very table the treaty was signed on, Admiral Chester Nimitz’s uniform, and the pen he used to sign the treaty.

Exhibits on the modern-day Navy include The Cold War, Navy in Space and the temporary exhibit, Ability, Not Gender, which celebrates women’s accomplishments in the Navy and Naval Academy since 1976, when women were first admitted to the school. 

On the second floor, you’ll find the most impressive permanent exhibit of the museum, the Rogers Ship Model Collection, which was bequeathed to the museum by 19th-century oil baron Henry Huddleston Rogers and includes intricate models of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century warships and an incredible collection of bone models carved by French prisoners in English jails during the Anglo-French wars from 1756 to 1815.

“It’s a gem because people won’t see anything like this anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere,” says Berube. “We display more original dock models than any other museum.”

The collection has 108 models, including warships, exploration and merchant vessels. The exhibit also provides dioramas of life aboard in the great Age of Sail such as Life Between Decks, c.1650; Ship Model Maker’s Shop, c.1700; Navigation and Signalling, c.1750; and The Quarterdeck, c.1800.

Most of the models were built as the ships were constructed and finished within several years of the ships’ completions, from the mid-1600s to the 1840s, which provides us extraordinary accuracy in detail and scale, above and below decks. According to the curators, the models often serve as “the only surviving physical record of ships built during the classic Age of Sail.” 

“The same challenges 300 years ago are the same challenges we face today,” Berube says, “what boatbuilding was used for, the number of people in propulsion, the functions of the boats. It’s part of our story, not just the history of the Navy, but it’s what our midshipmen face.”

The museum’s curator of ships, Donald Preul, works with 26 volunteer model makers in a dedicated model shop at the museum to maintain the collection and to create later models of ships from the 20th and 21st centuries. 

“We build them primarily to educate, help with interpretation of history and restore what’s existing within the collection,” Preul says. “We are a teaching museum to educate the midshipmen. We help to understand naval history and heritage.” 

Everything is handcrafted and painted based on drawings of the original ship. Visitors are welcome to view the model-making process through the window of the workshop and ask questions. 

The ships are so lifelike, from their sleek hulls to their majestic sails, that it’s easy to be swept to a time when they sailed the open ocean. 

The Naval Academy Museum (410-293-2108; www.usna.edu/museum) is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat. and Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is free, those over 18 must bring a valid ID to enter the Naval Academy grounds.