In Part I of “An Engine House Becomes a Museum” we discussed the original use of Building 22, as the pump house for the Charlestown Navy Yard’s first dry dock. We pick up the story of this iconic building in the last quarter of the 20th century, when the renovated building became the USS Constitution Museum. Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, renowned maritime and U.S. Navy scholar, formally opened the Museum on April 8, 1976.
Over the last four decades, the USS Constitution Museum has told the stories of “Old Ironsides” through immersive and hands-on exhibits. Displays such as A Look Below the Waterline explained the ship’s construction. Constitution‘s remarkable escape from the British Squadron in July, 1812, was memorably exhibited in The Great Chase interactive. The Life at Sea exhibit was a favorite for many years as it brought to life the daily routines of the officers and men who sailed in 1812. As part of that exhibit, visitors could swing in a hammock or steer Constitution’s double steering wheel. The evocative look of the Around the World Aboard “Old Ironsides” exhibit allowed visitors to voyage to the foreign lands of Mozambique, Madagascar, the floating cities of Borneo, and the sun-baked desert of Mazatlan, Mexico.
The core objects that made up the Museum’s founding collection came from the artifacts that were displayed aboard Constitution from the time of the ship’s National Cruise of 1931-1934. Since 1976, those objects have been on long-term loan to the Museum from the U.S. Navy. Today, the Museum’s collection has grown to approximately 2,000 artifacts and 4,000 archival materials.
To facilitate access to these materials, the Museum is collaborating with Digital Commonwealth–a Massachusetts-wide consortium of libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies– and the Internet Archive to provide free online access to highlights from the Museum’s War of 1812 collection. Since April, 2016, 427 manuscripts, pamphlets and rare books have been digitized and the online collection continues to grow. More information on how to access these materials is available in a Log Lines post.
A gallery of photographs of exhibits aboard USS Constitution & in the Museum from the 1930s to the 1980s.
In the autumn of 1993, the USS Constitution Museum embarked on an ambitious plan to add more historic buildings to its complex, thereby enlarging the exhibition, collections storage, and administration areas. In 1994, the Museum opened a one-story glass corridor which was built to link Building 22 to the brick boiler house on the north and east sides of the former Engine House. The boiler house had become an electrical power substation by the mid-20th century and all of the electrical switching units had to be removed in order to create the Museum’s first, purpose-designed theatre.
A gallery of photographs of exhibits at the USS Constitution Museum from the 1990s to the 2010s.
In 1995, the Museum began the second phase of its expansion by opening up Building 28 to the glass corridor. Between 1995 and 1996, Building 28, built in the 1850s to store coal for the boilers of Building 22, became the Museum’s new exhibition halls. When the renovations of Building 28 began, it became apparent that two-thirds of the building’s back wall would have to be re-built, repairing decades-old damage from a traveling crane that had hit the building. In the summer of 1996, the USS Constitution Museum cut the ribbon on Building 28 and inaugurated the exhibit “Old Ironsides” in War & Peace, a sweeping 200-year retrospective of the ship’s history. This exhibit helped to usher in the 200th anniversary commemorations of USS Constitution’s 1797 launch.
The USS Constitution Museum began its third expansion phase in late 1999, when the second floor exhibit galleries in Building 22 were closed. The whole floor was renovated to become the Museum’s collections storage, library and archives, reading room, and offices of the Curatorial Department. For the first time in its history, the Museum was able to provide state-of-the art, purpose-built compact storage for its growing collections of artifacts, rare books, and manuscripts. The Samuel Eliot Morison Memorial Library, named in honor of RADM Morison, opened in 2000. The library has welcomed scholars from around the world who have come to research “Old Ironsides” and the early United States Navy.
A gallery of photographs showing the original collections storage and library and the new facilities which opened in 2000.
The summer of 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the USS Constitution Museum in Building 22, the 1832 Alexander Parris-designed “Engine House”. The glass corridor linking the buildings is currently home to Making “Old Ironsides” New, an exhibit on the 2015 – 2017 dry docking and restoration of Constitution. The corridor also showcases the newest semi-permanent exhibit, Forest to Frigate, which opened in July, 2016, and details the stories of the people and materials that created Constitution and the new United States Navy.
– M. M. Desy & P. Scott