Steve Ewing
Senior Curator and Director of Exhibits
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum

Principles of designing and constructing museum exhibits are well established. However, basic principles require some modification when exhibits are placed on board preserved naval vessels. Aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and others were initially designed for functions far removed from museum considerations.


The purpose of an exhibit on board a memorialized naval vessel is to honor the memory of a vessel, battle, aircraft, individual, or an event, that contributed significantly to naval history. Although input and cooperation of people not employed by the museum is desirable, it must be noted that no professionally operated museum will abdicate its responsibility for the design, construction and control of its exhibits. Outside sponsorship can be detrimental when the donor has influence on the story told in an exhibit; history can be distorted unless a museum rigorously defends control of the exhibit process. And, non-professionals are not likely to understand unique shipboard exhibits requirements.


All exhibits on board a memorialized naval vessel should be in concert with the basic theme orientation of the museum. For example, an exhibit honoring the renowned 101st Airborne is out of place on a destroyer unless the overall theme of that museum is to honor veterans of all services.

The battleship North Carolina is chartered to honor only that ship and her veterans, whereas the carrier Yorktown is set up to honor her many sister ships, along with other combat ships, naval aircraft, famous aviators and naval veterans in general. In short, the preservation of the North Carolina and 1945 naval science state-of-the-art is the theme in Wilmington, while in Charleston Harbor the Yorktown is a means to an end beyond its own remembrance. Both of these themes are valid and appropriate; the objective is consistency in exhibits within the framework of a stated theme.

Upon determination of a theme, special opportunities exist to present a comprehensive story through exhibits. A visitor to Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, who has a grasp of World War II history, may expect or hope to find a treatment of Alabama's three sister ships. If the Alabama and Massachusetts choose to go beyond their own proud history and offer displays for all World War II U.S. Navy battleships, there would be an opportunity to not only fill some gaps in historical remembrance but also to attract meaningful artifacts that might otherwise escape preservation.

Long-range Planning

Easily the best manner in which to ensure consistency in exhibits within the framework of a stated theme is to employ long-range planning. When a naval vessel is retired, the first determination to be made is whether the vessel will be preserved as she is at the time of retirement or as she was at an earlier time in her life. Or will she be utilized as a museum housing numerous exhibit themes, as does the retired USS Intrepid CV-11's Air-Sea-Space Museum in New York City?

Once the theme is determined, an overall ten-year plan should be devised with specific objectives listed in a shorter five-year implementation plan. With eyes always toward the ultimate ten-year and five-year plans, a yearly plan should be announced and broken down into minutely detailed monthly worksheets.

Those who have worked in exhibits know that as much as three or four years' lead time may be necessary for the creation of a specific exhibit. Large models (five to ten feet in size) may require two years to construct, and original paintings often require six to twelve months. The minimum time to research, develop, and construct a quality exhibit is one year.

Many museums construct exhibits to be rotated from display status to storage and back to display. Although this policy may be desirable for some exhibits on board memorialized vessels, it is not unusual to find a high ratio of permanent exhibits. In fact, a visitor drawn to a memorialized vessel on subsequent visits often returns to enjoy the same artifacts, memorabilia, models, pictures and paintings that served as the magnet for the first visit. Indeed, a "memorial" exhibit theme implies permanence.

Space Utilization

Although preserved battleships, aircraft carriers and some merchant vessels are quite large, the desirable space for exhibits is not. Children may be inclined to investigate the many decks of large ships, but safety is not always a paramount concern of youth. Elderly citizens often cannot negotiate the steep ladders, and the space requirements for an exhibit may not be available without altering the structure of the vessel... a practice few curators endorse.

Recognition of the need to utilize limited space judiciously is critical in long-range planning and exhibit design. A further benefit of using exhibit space wisely is the possible elimination of artifact and memorabilia duplication. Collection managers know well the abundance of uniforms, orders, medals, newspaper clippings, etc., and the relative paucity of items such as a Medal of Honor or fragment of a vessel lost in battle. To hold the interest of a visitor, exhibits should present, to the greatest degree possible, a variety of different items for interpretation.

Artifacts Control

Control of exhibits has already been discussed, but control of funding, design, and construction means little if a museum does not also control artifacts and memorabilia. Material should not be accepted unless the donor understands he is relinquishing ownership and control. Of course, a museum has a responsibility to preserve the gift, or not accept it at all.


With any museum, high standards of design and quality control should be a primary consideration. On board memorialized vessels, exacting standards are critical due to unique problems, especially in regard to artifact security and climate control.


A large memorialized vessel presents numerous temptations to visitors wishing to preserve naval history in their own homes. Curators always grieve at the loss of any item removed from the museum, and they are particularly pained when the theft appears to have been simply an afterthought in an act of vandalism. Whether the item is taken for the challenge of stealing, or for treasure-hunting, museum professionals working on board preserved vessels face a greater challenge than their counterparts operating in buildings.

Whereas collections kept in buildings enjoy a relatively high degree of security due to high visibility through open spaces, the many decks and isolated compartments of vessels provide visitors with considerable opportunities. Experience seems to indicate that nearly all thefts of artifacts and memorabilia from naval vessel museums can be traced to the non-professional thief, as the items on display do not have a high demand for quick or profitable return. Therefore, security should be directed to foiling the attempts of amateurs by securing cases, paintings, pictures and models in a manner that requires time and special tools for removal. Although this practice adds to the time and effort of construction and maintenance, big dividends in security accrue.

Climate Control

A retired naval vessel is notorious for the absence of climate control. A natural conflict exists between the desire for both climate control and easy access to visitors who usually move through a ship at good speed and are not inclined to open a multitude of doors and hatches. Although the expense to maintain climate control on a smaller vessel might be manageable, it could be exorbitant on carriers and battleships if they are open throughout.

The carrier Intrepid does enjoy climate control to a much greater degree than the carrier Yorktown, but in order to achieve climate control the Intrepid has had to restrict visitation to the closed hangar deck and selected areas, and has lost some of her "openness." In contrast, visitors to the more open Yorktown are cooled in summer by breezes entering through many raised hangar curtains, cooked medium-well below decks, and warmed in winter only by hot chocolate and coffee.

While both approaches work for the respective Essex class vessels, the problem of moisture remains. It is a challenge for all preserved vessels, as they are located in or near large bodies of water. Therefore, while climate control is desirable for the comfort of visitors, it is also critical for the preservation of all the elements found in exhibits.

Compartment Clearing, Flooring and Colors

Before returning to consideration of security and climate control in exhibits, it is best to follow from here, in order of occurrence, the method of constructing an exhibit. With theme resolved, the first consideration is the determination of location for a new exhibit. A compartment must first be cleared, attempting to preserve as much of the vessel's structure as possible. As this space may one day revert to its former status, a curator should have good quality photographs of the entire compartment as it was prior to clearing. The necessity for planning becomes quickly evident if allowance has not been made for the movement of steel objects larger than the standard 26-inch doorways.

Once cleared, flooring is the next order of business. The best solution for flooring is tile or a painted steel deck. Even the best industrial grade carpet is no match for visitors (some of whom will travel over a thousand miles to leave gum or lunch on shipboard carpet), moisture, grease, oil, and mysterious liquids from overhead pipes.

As the removal of tile and/or rust from the deck will "dust" the adjoining bulkheads and the overhead, painting should be done last. Latex paint should never be used on steel surfaces, but is well-suited to wood. When latex paint is used, it should always be semi-gloss, as flat surfaces are next to impossible to clean.

Colors for compartments should contrast with the paint scheme of passageways. In this manner, a visitor will know when he or she is entering an exhibit area, an area that is "different" and special. If passageways are white (USS North Carolina), different shades of gray or blue make appropriate backdrops. If green (Yorktown), then white, gray, blue or yellow can be used. For unique exhibits, black can be used if lighting is adapted properly.

Lighting is often the first consideration for many exhibit planners, because on vessels the very low overhead creates unique lighting problems. The exhibit designer may find that wiring can be run in the initial stages of construction, but final placement of lights may have to wait until all panels, consoles and cases are in place.

Display Panels

To ensure the structural integrity of a historic naval vessel, compartments converted to exhibits should feature free-standing display panels. The panels can hold pictures, paintings, textplates and some artifacts. Also, 2 x 4's can be cut at angles, one being mounted to a bulkhead and the second mounted to the back of a display panel to allow the panel to be mounted vertically against a bulkhead.

One of the best materials to use for display panels is 3/4" birch plywood. It is more expensive than many other materials but, if properly sealed before painting, it offers great longevity as well as strength and smooth surface. Semi-gloss paint, when applied with a heavy nap roller, will give a textured, vinyl-like appearance if such is desired. Spray painting is necessary for a smooth appearance. And the seven- or nine-ply edges should be covered with 3/4" molding.

Just as the exhibit requires a major header (a large sign usually silk-screened, routed, painted, or made with plastic letters), each major display panel should have a small header to quickly introduce the visitor to the respective panels. These headers can be constructed in the same manner as the large header, but the smaller headers are well served by engraved plastic signs that can be framed and fronted with plexiglas. Most engraving shops can produce these signs up to 16 x 20 inches without difficulty and at a reasonable cost. Plastic signs come in a multitude of colors, making color coordination easy. Descriptive textplates at the 16 x 20" size can offer the visitor up to 400 words of information. Keep in mind that relatively small compartments on ships allow visitors to stand within inches of textplates.

For purposes of security and climate control, as well as appearance, it is suggested that wood frames of approximately 1-1/2" width be custom made for shipboard use. Wood will not rust, can be painted or stained for color coordination, and can be screwed into the display panel for security. It is further suggested that all pictures, framed textplates, headers, and even paintings where possible, be mounted by using 1-1/4" screws through the back of the display panel into the back of the wood frame. This practice hides the screw head and greatly discourages theft.

Before being mounted to a display panel, pictures should be copied -- if there is not already a negative on file -- and displayed in sizes larger than 8 x 10 inches. For appearance, dry-mounting is a must and, on vessels, plexiglass offers much greater safety and security than other types of glass. Cost effectiveness is best obtained by purchasing the standard 1/8", 4 x 8' plexiglas sheets and cutting them into desired sizes.

As in any major museum, pictures should not be displayed unframed and should not be mounted with tacks or tape. Even industrial double-sided tape will lose its adhesive capacity in time, and the use of tacks and tape will bring few compliments to the museum staff.

Polymer resin is an alternative to framing for pictures. Resin is low in cost and provides permanence and easier maintenance. When used, such pictures (glossy finish only) should be placed on 3/4" fibercore birch, which allows for a better looking and smoother edge. The resin must cure for at least three days, but three weeks is preferred. (Editor's note: resin-coating is not recommended for original artifacts.) Although resin-coated pictures are subject to damage in direct sunlight, maintenance requires little more than dusting. Resin will withstand pervasive humidity, cleaning with water (ammonia-based cleaners are not recommended), and the wood is easily mounted with 1-1/4" screws through the display panel into the back of the 3/4" fibercore birch backing.

Original paintings are often presented without glass in the frame, but shipboard climatic and security considerations dictate the use of glass or plexiglass for protection. Where possible, even original artwork should be mounted with screws into the back of the wood frame, as noted earlier.

Display Cases

Although the historian's primary interest in exhibit design may be the textplates and pictures, and exhibit planners may be most excited about design and color coordination, a visitor may well be most interested in artifacts, models and memorabilia. While few visitors will have interest in the display cases which hold these items, the design and construction of display cases requires special attention of shipboard exhibit builders.

The first consideration is security; therefore, cases for permanent displays can be built without locks. If one may assume that most shipboard exhibits are to be permanent or semi-permanent, the sealing of cases without locks presents little problem. Seldom will a non-professional thief arrive aboard with the tools necessary to defeat tamper-proof screws and nailed trim strips. A case fronted with plexiglass and mounted with tamper-proof screws, with corner molding over the edges secured with one-inch panel nails, will require the potential thief to expend considerable time and to create a good bit of noise in attempting to penetrate.

The design of a display case can take many forms. After security, the most important requirement is visibility. Whereas exhibits in buildings often allow generous vertical and horizontal space, ship compartments are extremely limiting. Consequently, finding ways to build display cases that present items at or near eye level will be a major challenge. One solution is the use of bubble plexiglass mounted with tamper-proof screws.

A final matter of concern related to display cases is labeling. Although labeling policies are rightly in the domain of respective museums, engraved plastic signs are perhaps the best way to present labels describing artifacts and memorabilia. These provide color coordination and readability via contrasting colors, and they are surprisingly inexpensive. When mounted on angled blocks, these labels can be very effective. In historic naval vessel exhibits, typed labels resting flat on a shelf can have the same effect as a tuxedo worn with a T-shirt.


All museum staff working with memorialized vessels will have contact with veterans. While the vast majority of veterans appreciate any and all efforts toward preservation of the vessel and construction of historical exhibits, it is not possible to please 100 percent of the living. Consolation, however, rests in the knowledge that all who gave their lives in service would appreciate the few who work to preserve their memory on board memorialized naval vessels.

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