The USN Academy Museum, Annapolis
The ship models housed in the “Class of 1951” Gallery in the United States Naval Academy Museum must rival any in the world for painstaking quality, detail and value. Above is a beautifully sectioned model of HMS Grafton, a two-and-a-half gun-deck third-rate of 1679. (USN Academy photo)
The museum, situated within the USN Academy, Annapolis, and about 35 miles east of Washington DC on US Route 50 (Exit 24), attracts many of the million-odd visitors who call on the Academy each year. It can be hard to find, but remember it is just inside, to the right, if you enter through the Academy’s Maryland Avenue gate entrance. The museum is open to the public 0900 to 1700 Monday to Saturday and 1100 to 1700 on Sundays. There is no entry charge; it is handicapped accessible and limited free parking is nearby. The museum closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Its unprepossessing exterior belies the richness of the jewels inside. As well as its beautiful ancient and modern ship models, there are paintings, flags, rare books, charts, a library and a host of personal memorabilia that span the entire life of the USN. The collection all started in 1845, as the Lyceum, controlled by the Academy’s first chaplain. Instructional aids from the then Departments of Gunnery and Seamanship were gradually gathered and restored. In 1939 it moved into its present permanent home and in 1970 the Museum was formally dedicated to the memory of CDRE Edward Preble (1761-1807).
Since its earliest days, many private individuals and groups donated important and valuable assets. For instance, the Rogers Ship Models Collection comprises 108 sailing ship models of the 1650 to 1850 era. Colonel Henry Huddleston Rogers, an industrialist, started building the collection in 1917 and bequeathed it to the museum in 1935. It is one of the most comprehensive and valuable of its type in the world. These models might be found in pride of place on the ground floor of Preble Hall. The Academy’s Class of 1951 supports the museum so that the collection may be maintained and exhibited in the manner it deserves. A Director and three Curators head the museum staff. Additional professional and office staff, US Marine guards and volunteers back up these people. Federal funds and a number of endowments support Preble Hall. The well-stocked bookshop accepts nominations for membership of the USN Institute. (The highly popular and learned Proceedings journal goes with USNI membership.)
This rare and valuable sailing ship model was carved from bone by a prisoner-of-war about 1800.
Sailing ship models
Nearly all of the priceless sailing ship models were constructed within a few years of the launch of the ship or type of ship they represent. For instance, a model of the 96-gun ship-of-the-line St George was completed within a year of the ship herself being launched in 1701.
All models are crafted with remarkable precision, and for very good reason. It had been longstanding tradition for ship builders to construct their complex craft more by eye than by blueprint. Because ship construction drawings, as we know them, did not exist, a precise model “as launched” was important if another ship of the same class was planned, if sailing or stability problems were encountered or the original ship was modified.
The ship model collection illustrates graphically how sailing warship design changed over the years. It traces the gradual diminishing of elaborate carving, probably as a cost-saving measure, at the bows and stern. It also shows the steady evolutions in bow design, gun placement and rigging, from “first rates” carrying 100 guns or more, through to “sixth rates” of maybe only 20 guns.
Some models are sectioned on one or both sides for easy viewing of the cramped ’tween deck conditions. It is amazing to see how hundreds of men lived and fought in these constricted and obviously unhealthy conditions. It may be no wonder that there were mutinies in ships such as these, with their press-ganged and oppressed crews. It may be more of a wonder that there were so few mutinies. Additionally, a number of the original cases carrying the models have their own intrinsic value and history, sometimes rivalling their contents.
Probably the largest collection in the world of models of sailing ships carved from bone and ivory are in another section of the museum. These make a very interesting, even macabre, contrast to the wooden models. Many were built during the Napoleonic conflicts by prisoners-of-war. They are not necessarily perfect scale models, but they are characteristic of the beautiful ships they represent. In many instances, bones recycled from prisoner’s meagre food rations provided the models’ basic building materials.
Yet other large display areas of the museum are devoted to more modern naval history, including relics of the Japanese surrender after WW II, and other aspects of naval life. Tracing the entire history of the USN, there are a number of excellent displays of modern ships, aircraft and their weapons. The Pacific War is well represented with displays of models and documents.
Those interested in sailing ship models should not miss any opportunity to inspect this unique collection. Afterwards, consider a walk around the grounds of the USN Naval Academy, or take a turn around the dock area and restaurants of Annapolis itself. Try the soft shell crab (in season).