Future National Coast Guard Museum already a boost for downtown

The Day

By: Jim Motavalli, Special for The Day Magazine

March 6, 2023


The U.S. Coast Guard dates to 1790, when President George Washington signed its predecessor Revenue Cutter Service into existence, with the goal of fighting smuggling and tariff violators via a fleet of 10 ships. That order predates the creation of the U.S. Navy Department by a good eight years. But, although the sailors have an official museum at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the Coast Guard does not, and that has left its rich history scattered around the country.

The Coast Guard is the only traditional branch of the U.S. Armed Forces without a national museum. Even the newest military branch, the U.S. Space Force, founded in 2019, has a home for its artifacts in the former Air Force Space & Missile Museum, which was renamed the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum in 2022. But that doesn’t mean the Coast Guard has no artifacts. For instance, the Coast Guard’s Heritage Asset Collection in Forestville, Maryland, has some 20,000 items, including some from the days of the Revenue Cutter Service: a silver gravy boat from the ward room of the Androscoggin, and a hand-held brass-and-glass oil lantern from Admiral H.S. Berdine’s stateroom on the Seminole.

Now, some of the Coast Guard’s colorful memorabilia will be collected in downtown New London, along with interactive displays and you-are-there experiences.

Likely to welcome visitors as early as the end of 2024 is the long-delayed National Coast Guard Museum, originally announced in 2014 and then slated to open in late 2017. The four-story, 54,300-square-foot steel-and-glass museum, on a 0.37-acre lot behind Union Station, will be connected by a state-funded pedestrian bridge that will also lead to the parking garage and Cross Sound Ferry terminal, giving easy access via rail, boat and private car.

Visitors can also tour the Coast Guard cutter Eagle, already home-ported in New London. It’s a tall ship, currently undergoing repairs, that was taken as reparations from its German builders after World War II. Now it serves to train cadets from the nearby U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

“This will be a major game-changer for us,” said Mayor Michael Passero of the museum. “It will put us on the map with other major tourist destinations, on the level of the Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, and the Essex steam train. New London is the most historic city in the region, but we’ve never been known as a tourist destination until now.”

It wasn’t a given that the museum would be in New London. That’s despite the fact that the Coast Guard Academy has been in the city since 1910, when it was established at Fort Trumbull, which dates to the Revolutionary War and early efforts to guard against coastal attack.

Passero describes a “vicious” fight with contenders such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Newport News, Virginia, and even locations in New York state, where then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton was striving to bring home an important revenue generator—possibly to Manhattan’s Battery Park. Another barrier was the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who attended school in New London until he was 9, but deplored “earmarks” (pet projects) and engineered a ban on funding for military museums. Once that was rescinded, the project could go ahead.

One reason for the museum’s delay was the slow pace of private grassroots funding, which is accelerating now. Retired Capt. Mark Walsh, chief operating officer of the National Coast Guard Museum Association, said that the museum has so far raised $36 million of its $50 million goal for private donations, and that the end is in sight.

“We’re looking at $150 million all in,” he said, “including the state funding for public access. We’re shooting to open in late 2024, but maybe in early 2025.”

Connecticut’s U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy helped secure millions in federal funds for the project. According to columnist David Collins in The Day, “If not for the senator’s $50 million intervention [in the 2022 budget], the foundering project, adrift with lackluster private fundraising for more than a decade, was destined to sink like a stone, another of New London’s lost dreams.” Murphy said another $20 million had been allocated in 2023, specifically to pay for exhibits.

“I am 100 percent committed to getting the museum built,” Murphy told The Day Magazine. “It’s the right thing for the country, for the Coast Guard and for Connecticut. It’s not right that every other branch of the military has a museum to tell its story, and some have a dozen.”

Murphy said that getting the museum funded proved to be “a long road.” Among the issues: The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and not the Defense Department, which “has a budget in the hundreds of billion dollars,” Murphy said. “The Navy has so many museums it has a Department of Museums.”
Murphy said that siting discussions had included a site near Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in nearby Groton, another Revolutionary War installation. But, he said, “Being downtown is important. People will visit the museum, then stick around for drinks and dinner” in New London.

There are clear signs that the museum is already revitalizing New London’s downtown area. Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said that the chamber is relocating from Waterford to a site “1,200 yards from the new museum building on Eugene O’Neill Drive.” The new chamber site will include a startup incubator and co-working space, Sheridan said.
“It’s very exciting,” Sheridan told The Day Magazine. “Having the museum in downtown New London was a big motivator for our deciding that moving there was the right thing to do.”

Sheridan said that New London, “like a lot of our smaller cities, has been affected by people moving to the suburbs, and then COVID of course. But now we have 1,300 new apartments and condos being built around New London, and it wouldn’t be happening without the Coast Guard Museum. There’s an energy now that’s unstoppable. The old buildings are being bought up and renovated. There are still some naysayers, but this really benefits everyone.”

Downtown restaurants and galleries have been especially affected by the long virus shutdown, but now they’re cautiously optimistic.

“I’ve heard that the museum will bring in 250,000 to 500,000 people a year” to New London, said Ellen Cummings, owner of the fair-trade gift store Flavours of Life, which has been on Bank Street for 17 years. “Those people are bound to spill out into the downtown area. It’s wonderful, and I’ve been waiting a long time.”

According to Sara Tyler-Connolly, director of the Hygienic Art galleries on Bank Street, “It should bring a lot of foot traffic to downtown. We shall see, but we can only be optimistic.”

Elizabeth Varner, the museum’s incoming director, told The Day Magazine that artifacts like those at the Coast Guard facility in Maryland are scattered around the country, but that static exhibits of such memorabilia will not be a central feature of the new facility. Instead, there will be “a lot of interactive displays to tell the Coast Guard’s story. Visits will be an immersive experience.”
For instance, she said, visitors will feel they’re underneath a Coast Guard helicopter coming in to save them after a major flood. They’ll be able to aim a Lyle gun cannon (once used for sending out rescue lines) to see if they can get the right projection.

“You will feel like you’re on the scene,” Varner said. The museum will have more than 200 galleries and exhibits, and will be divided into “decks” dedicated to security, safety and stewardship. Visitors will not just read plaques—they’ll be asked to solve problems and learn new skills.

After patrons have fed their intellectual curiosity at the museum, New London merchants are hoping they’ll stay awhile and feed their bodies, too.

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