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From Collection to Museum Exhibition

By Megan Churchwell, Museum Curator, Puget Sound Navy Museum

John Harry Steen (1877-1969) joined the Navy in 1903 and arrived in Bremerton soon after.

As the Puget Sound Navy Museum’s Curator, it’s my job to develop new exhibits for the museum. We are pleased to announce the opening of our latest exhibit, “John H. Steen: Photographing the Navy Yard.” It features a collection of photographs donated to the museum in 2015 by John Steen’s granddaughter.

This exhibit is the culmination of several years of behind-the-scenes work that started long before I began curating the exhibit. The process started when Steen’s lifetime of photographic work arrived at the museum in seven boxes. The collection was quite varied – from large, hand-colored prints, to glass-plate negatives, to nitrate film. For a look at the process of creating the exhibit, I sat down with Collections Manager Megan Jablonski.

How do you even begin to process a large collection like that?

Each of the boxes was filled to the brim with black and white prints and negatives of all kinds. There were many smaller boxes of glass plate negatives, a few of which had been shattered into pieces that we found at the bottom of the boxes. Everything was jumbled together, with no organization. The first step was to take everything out of its boxes and sort by type, to make processing much easier.

As we sorted, we discovered some nitrate film in the collection, and it was immediately bagged and transferred to our freezer. This type of film was used into the 1950s for as an alternative to heavy (and fragile) glass plate negatives. As this film type degrades, the particles become highly flammable, and don’t need much encouragement to ignite. These fires burn so hot that they can even ignite underwater! Needless to say, we were extra careful with the film once we identified it as nitrate. The cold environment of the freezer slows down the chemical reaction, and is the only way to safely store this type of film.


Other photos were carefully rehoused in archival, acid-free storage boxes and sleeves. Part of Megan’s job as a collections manager is to ensure the Navy’s artifact collection is around for as many future generations as possible! Ideally, the great great great grandchildren of John Steen will be able to admire their ancestor’s work just as much as his grandchildren were able to!

OK, it’s sorted. What next?

Once the collection was organized, Megan moved on to cataloging and condition reporting. This involves making a list of every item in the collection – more than 500 individual pieces! – and noting its size, type, and condition. Some of these photos were labeled by the photographer, but many were not, or their labels were damaged or lost to time. For this, we turned to Facebook and our dedicated volunteers to help us identify the content of each photo.

Photographing and scanning

Finally, every object in the collection was digitally photographed or scanned. These scans made my job of curation much easier, because I could flip through digital images rather than handling fragile glass negatives in order to choose which photos would be on display.

Some of the images on display were chosen for their strikingly artistic view of ships at the shipyard. Others were chosen to represent themes that stuck out in Steen’s work. The resulting exhibition documents the Puget Sound Navy Yard and its people through the lens of both a professional photographer and a Sailor.

Check out a few of the photographs from the collection below, and make sure to follow the museum on Facebook for more!


In the Navy, Steen served as a Musician First Class, playing in the ship’s band aboard USS Wisconsin. His fellow musicians, including this Navy band, were a frequent subject of his photographs.


John’s wife, Edna H. Barrell Steen, also served in the Navy. During World War I, she was a “Yeomanette,” one of approximately 200 enlisted women serving at the Puget Sound Navy Yard at that time. At the Shipyard, she served as a draftsman. Edna is pictured in her naval uniform with their daughter, Rosella Lillian (born 1920), in the family home.


Even in wartime, Steen found time to turn his camera towards lighthearted scenes of everyday life.