After more than 50 years of glass display boxes and white walls, the Naval Academy museum is opening a renovated gallery this week to update its image, attract visitors and entice students to return after their mandatory plebe-year visit.
After a $1.6 million makeover, a dusty portrait hall at the rear of the museum has become a room full of color, video displays and never-before-seen exhibits that will take visitors through naval history from the Spanish-American War to the space age.
For many years, the museum drew few visitors other than alumni, the initial barrage of plebes and those who drop in after a tour of the yard, or campus. Museum officials hope the renovation will change that, and that the exhibits will draw people by showing the often dramatic ways the academy has shaped American history, mostly through famous alumni.
The museum will offer a private showing Friday to Class of 1950 alumni, who raised most of the funds. It will open to the public Saturday.
Director J. Scott Harmon, who came to the academy as an exhibit designer for the National Park Service 18 months ago, said he saw the potential of the place from the moment he was introduced to the museum's extensive collection. Items were crammed in random order into display cases topped with glass.
"When I walk into this room, my initial impression is gray and glass," said Harmon as he passed through the unrenovated portion of the museum. "But when you walk through this gallery with the raised panels, interactive displays, you get the sense it's the graduates from this institution that have helped guide us through history."
Harmon, who is a Naval Academy graduate, came to the museum largely to undertake the project. As finishing touches were being put on the exhibits last week, he said he hopes people will find it lively and engaging, and will come away from a visit with the sense that someone has told them a story.
The highlight of the collection is the table from the battleship Missouri, where Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and others signed the terms of Japan's surrender in World War II.
The museum also displays the tablecloth, chair and pen from the event. Before the renovation, the table and other items were in a glass case.
Now the table is in front of a life-size picture of Nimitz sitting at the table signing the papers. Visitors walk up to the exhibit on teak floorboards, past boat railings that match those in the photograph's background.
Most of the museum's artifacts -- among them, the spacesuit worn by 1971 academy graduate and astronaut David C. Leestma, and a German Enigma encryption machine from World War II -- were given to the museum by alumni.
Over the years, museum officials have filled several storage areas with hundreds of donations they did not have room to display. Harmon sifted through the items for weeks, picking out those that could be combined into historical groups.
"There are many more things I would have liked to include as an exhibit or corner, but we didn't have the artifacts to support it," Harmon said. "And after all, images and text are important, but museums are about artifacts."
Because of limited storage space, the museum has become more selective about which donations it accepts. It requires that all donations be relevant to the academy.
"It can be very difficult to turn some offers down," Harmon said. "We have to say, 'Yeah that's nice, but it has nothing to do with the Naval Academy.' "