by Nancy Parode
Many of us look forward to Memorial Day weekend, long considered to be the unofficial beginning of summer. This year, why not start the summer season by honoring those who gave their lives in combat and visit a local military museum?
A wealth of military museums
The national capital region is home to many world-class museums, including several dedicated to telling the story of the U.S. Armed Forces. The newest of these, the National Museum of the U.S. Army, opened on Veterans Day 2020.
Military museum exhibits take you not only to famous battles but also to the tents and racks of Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines. You’ll see weapons, uniforms, artifacts, and transportation vehicles. Most importantly, you’ll encounter the stories of enlisted folks and commissioned officers who proudly served when their country needed them.
All of the museums described below are free and open to the public. The two Navy museums are located on military installations, so you will need to carefully follow visitor access procedures.
National Museum of the Marine Corps
The National Museum of the Marine Corps takes a chronological approach to telling the story of the Marines from 1775 to the present. Additional exhibits explain Marine recruit training, showcase combat art, and honor various aspects of life in the Corps.
Be sure to explore the Korean War and Vietnam exhibits, which take you to Korea’s Toktong Pass and a hilltop near Khe Sanh. You’ll feel as though you’re really on the battlefield.
New exhibits, which will interpret the history of the Marine Corps from 1976 through the conflict in Afghanistan, are under construction. The museum’s indoor laser rifle range (tickets are $5) is open on weekends only.
TIP: Because several of the larger exhibits in this museum use loud sounds, flashing lights, and realistic mannequins to depict combat scenes, including battle injuries, this museum is more suitable for older children.
National Museum of the U.S. Army
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
The National Museum of the U.S. Army is so new that it almost seems to shine. While it is located at Fort Belvoir, you do not need a Department of Defense ID to access the museum. However, you do need a free timed-entry ticket to get in. It’s best to reserve your tickets in advance, especially on weekends.
The museum’s first floor includes exhibits that interpret the Army’s participation in all our country’s wars as well as a gallery that interprets the relationship between the Army and the people it is sworn to protect.
The introductory film is quite impressive. It includes loud sounds, so younger children and visitors with sound sensitivities should attend a showing with limited sensory elements.
Families with younger children should plan to spend some time at the Experiential Learning Center, where you’ll discover hands-on activities to enjoy.
On the second floor, you’ll find the Special Exhibition Gallery, which houses temporary exhibits. As of this writing, “Our Soldiers in Art” was on display.
The third floor includes two smaller exhibits, one depicting Soldiers who received the Medal of Honor and the second exploring the World War II experiences of the Nisei (first-generation Japanese-American) Soldiers. A rooftop garden honors Army Medal of Honor recipients.
There’s plenty of room to park in the lot in front of the museum.
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
This museum is a hidden gem. It’s harder to get to than most museums, but it’s well worth a visit. It’s housed in two buildings, and it contains some amazing artifacts. The main building is enormous, so there’s plenty of room for the Navy’s impressive collection. While the exhibit spaces look a little dated—a new museum will be built soon, with improved public access—the artifacts themselves go back to the Navy’s earliest days and include a Houdon bust of naval hero John Paul Jones, a watch bell from the USS Merrimack (later the ironclad CSS Virginia), and the bathyscaphe Trieste. You’ll be amazed at the number and quality of items on exhibit.
For hands-on fun, check out the periscopes in the Dive! Dive! Dive! U.S. Navy Submarines exhibit. If you decide to sound the klaxon, be ready—it’s very loud.
Willard Park, on the other side of the museum’s parking lot, contains some interesting artifacts, too. Bring a picnic and enjoy the view of the Anacostia River while you eat.
The museum’s Cold War Gallery is in a nearby building and is open Saturdays by appointment only. Call (202) 685-0589 for more information.
The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is located on the Washington Navy Yard, so you will have to follow access protocols unless you have a military ID card or other accepted government identification. On weekdays, you can fill out a form at the Visitor Control Center, located at 11th and O Streets SE. If you want to visit on a Saturday, you’ll need to submit the form to the Visitor Control Center at least seven business days in advance so they can vet you and place your name on the gate access list.
TIP: If you visit on a weekday, consider taking the Metro. On-base parking is likely to be difficult to find. According to museum staffers, there is usually garage space (on base, but several blocks from the museum) on weekday afternoons, especially Thursdays and Fridays. There’s plenty of parking in front of the museum on Saturdays.
U.S. Naval Academy Museum
Like its larger counterpart at the Washington Navy Yard, the U.S. Naval Academy Museum is a bit hard to get to, but worth the effort. The museum is located on the Naval Academy Yard, and you won’t be able to park there unless you have an approved DoD ID card. You can park in Annapolis and walk to Gate 1, or, if a special event is taking place, you can park at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium ($5) and take a shuttle bus to and from the Yard.
You’ll have to go through a security screening at the Visitor Access Center at Gate 1 in order to enter the Naval Academy Complex. This includes showing a valid photo ID.
Once on the Yard, follow signs to the museum building, Preble Hall. It’s near the Chapel, so if you head in that direction, you’ll be able to find Preble Hall quickly.
The museum is packed with fascinating artifacts related to naval history, the Naval Academy itself, and the accomplishments of its Navy and Marine Corps graduates.
On the first floor, you are invited to explore exhibits related to U.S. naval history, such as Oliver Hazard Perry’s iconic “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag from the War of 1812, an impressive collection of Naval Academy class rings—they’ve definitely changed over the years—and a Steuben glass sculpture commemorating the North Pole voyage of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine.
On the second floor, you’ll find an incredible (and large) collection of model ships. Created with precision and artistry, these detailed models will amaze you. Don’t miss the model ships that French prisoners of war carved from animal bones while imprisoned in England.
TIP: If you do not have a REAL ID driver’s license, bring a second government-issued photo ID with you, such as a school ID card or passport.