During much of its history, the Breech Mechanism Shop at the Washington Navy Yard manufactured 16-inch guns, barrels, small arms and gun mounts.
Today, the building is home to the Navy Museum, which will mark its 40th anniversary this May.
Although the mechanism shop ceased manufacturing munitions by 1962, two of the large cranes used for construction still hang in the warehouse-like structure, though neither is functional.
Instead, the 600-foot-long building is home to numerous exhibits, showcasing the Navy’s history in both peace and wartime.
[IMGCAP(1)] “Because we’re the Navy Museum we’re focused specially on the Navy and the Marines,” explained Sheila Brennan, director of education and public programs.
Among the museum’s permanent exhibitions, “In Harm’s Way: The U.S. Navy and World War II” is perhaps the most popular.
“We have the most comprehensive exhibit [in the world] that deals specifically with the Navy in World War II,” Brennan said.
The collection tracks the Navy’s involvement in the war from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to the Japanese surrender in 1945.
Among the artifacts, the collection includes an F-4U Corsair plane used in the war, now painted to represent a similar aircraft named the “Big Hog.”
The collection also features a section of a kamikaze aircraft’s wing, collected after the plane crashed into the USS Enterprise, as well as a model atomic bomb casing.
“Some of these objects are just unique and you’re not going to find too many of them [elsewhere], at least in the greater Washington-Baltimore area,” Brennan said.
In addition to its permanent collections, the museum operates a rotating display on current events involving the Navy. Its newest display focuses on Operation Enduring Freedom.
The museum is planning for the creation of a Cold War annex, as well as an exhibition on undersea exploration and underwater archeology including the Navy’s role in saving and preserving shipwrecks worldwide.
Scattered throughout the museum is the largest collection of publically viewable official Navy model ships.
“If you like Navy ship models, you can see a lot of them here,” Brennan said with a chuckle.
Among those on display is a scale model of the USS Constitution, which once resided in the offices of President John F. Kennedy and, later, White House Press Secretary James Brady. The museum received the model in the 1980s, after Brady was shot, and some consider the piece “a tainted model,” Brennan said.
For those visitors seeking a more hands-on experience, the museum offers a variety of interactive displays, many of which make use of equipment removed from decommissioned Naval ships.
The submarine exhibit features periscopes and a simulated combat center.
“We had periscope riggers from the Navy come in to install the periscopes so they work properly,” Brennan notes. The exhibit also features an operational “dive bell,” which would signal the ship’s descent.
Elsewhere in the museum are anti-aircraft guns which visitors can sit in and act as gunners’ mates.
Brennan adds, “If you want to pretend that you’re a ship captain, we do have a captain’s chair in our mock-up of a destroyer’s bridge, so you can sit there and look at the faux landscape and pretend you’re plotting your course.”
The museum is open to the public, but security at the Naval Yard requires museum visitors to schedule an appointment in advance by contacting (202) 433-6897. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the museum received up to 350,000 visitors annually, although those numbers have since declined by about a third, Brennan said.
The museum, which is part of the Naval Historical Center, also hosts a variety of events, including concerts and lectures.
Visitors to the Naval Museum also have access to the Marine Corps Historical Center, Navy Art Gallery and Destroyer Barry, a decommissioned Cold War-era ship permanently on display at the Navy Yard. Hours for these facilities may vary from those of the museum.
“You’re always going to attract certain types of visitors, and it’s for those who may not have wanted to come on their own, who once they got here, found that they really liked it, at that point we feel like we’ve done a really good job,” Brennan said.