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Founders Hall, original site of the Naval War College, c. 1884.

The Naval War College Museum

Founders Hall, original site of the Naval War College, c. 1884.
Founders Hall, original site of the Naval War College, c. 1884.

 

Tradition has it that on a late October’s day in 1884, U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen B. Luce came ashore at Coasters Harbor Island – a site designated earlier that month by the Secretary of the Navy to be a place for a new kind of college in Newport, Rhode Island. Once ashore, Luce proceeded to a large stone building, the former Newport Asylum for the Poor, climbed its rickety stairs and as he opened the front door solemnly announced to his few companions and the empty grounds, “Poor little poorhouse, I christen thee United States Naval War College.

(Founders Hall today, the Naval War College Museum)
Founders Hall today, the Naval War College Museum.

 

Today the “little poorhouse” is a well preserved and stately structure, a National Historic Landmark and home to the Naval War College Museum. Named Founders Hall in honor of the founding fathers of the College, it is uniquely suited for its current purpose. In addition to being the original site of the college, it is where Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the school’s second president (1886-1889) and renowned naval historian, first delivered his lectures on sea power—lectures which he then turned into the world-renowned book The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783.

Upon entering the museum, the first thing visitors encounter is a sizable model of Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship HMSVictory, displayed against a mural depicting the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Model of the HMSVictory, one of the first acquisitions to the museum’s collection.
Model of the HMSVictory, one of the first acquisitions to the museum’s collection.

 

But why does a U.S. Navy museum so prominently display a warship from a conflict in which America did not fight? This is what makes the Naval War College Museum collection so fascinating. Part of the museum’s mission is to interpret the history of naval warfare since ancient times, particularly as studied at the college. The Battle of Trafalgar and the strategic brilliance of Adm. Lord Nelson have been, and continue to be, studied at the Naval War College in an effort to educate professional naval officers on strategy and tactics through historical case studies. With such broad subject matter, the museum’s exhibits are not necessarily limited by era or geography; instead the collection weaves together stories of naval significance from around the world.

The Naval War College Museum also interprets the history of the Navy in Narragansett Bay, the history of the Naval Torpedo Station and its successor commands, and the Naval Training Station. These local histories, which are prominently featured in the museum’s galleries, demonstrate the historical significance of naval activity in Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay.

The Revolutionary War exhibit features artifacts recovered from the shipwrecks of the British frigates HMS Cerberus HMS Orpheus. The ships were scuttled in the bay to prevent French capture in 1778.
The Revolutionary War exhibit features artifacts recovered from the shipwrecks of the British frigates HMS Cerberus HMS Orpheus. The ships were scuttled in the bay to prevent French capture in 1778.

 

The Fish (top) and Howell torpedoes, both tested at Naval Torpedo Station Newport during the nineteenth century, are on exhibit in the Torpedo Gallery.
The Fish (top) and Howell torpedoes, both tested at Naval Torpedo Station Newport during the nineteenth century, are on exhibit in the Torpedo Gallery.

 

The museum is available for group tours by appointment and hosts a variety of educational programs and exhibits throughout the year. You can find out what’s new at the Naval War College Museum through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and by following the blog – Soundings in Narragansett Bay’s Naval History.

The museum is open to the public 10 A.M. to 4:30 P.M., Monday through Friday throughout the year, and noon to 4:30 P.M. on weekends from June through September. It is closed on holidays. Advance reservations are required. For more information, visit www.usnwc.edu/museum or call 401-841-4052.