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The Centennial Cold War Exhibition
at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The Concept

With the full support of the Director, Undersea Warfare (N87), the idea for an exhibition to commemorate the Submarine Force Centennial in 2000 was presented to Dr. Spencer Crew, the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), on 15 January 1998 by Admirals Kelso and Burkhalter Vice Admiral Don Engen, USN(Ret.), and Director of the National Air and Space Museum, arranged for the presentation at the request of Admiral Kelso.

Readers may recall that in 1993, the National Air and Space Museum proposed an exhibition commemorating the 5Qlh anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. A headline-making debate arose over the historical interpretation emphasizing the horrors of the results; at the expense of the historically accepted view that the atomic bomb saved millions of American lives by negating a costly invasion of homeland Japan. Subsequently, the Museum’s Director and Exhibition Curator were replaced. The Enola Gay exhibit finally opened in 1995. The experience left a legacy of sensitivity to exhibitions of a military nature throughout the Smithsonian Institution.

Thus, when the Naval Submarine League proposed celebrating nuclear submarines, the memories of the Enola Gay issue still resonated within the Institution. Thanks to the support and encouragement of Don Engen, our team gained an entree, made a persuasive presentation, and the rest, as they say, is history. Within three weeks conditional approval was granted to proceed with a concept portraying the story of the major role U.S. submarines played in the Cold War victory.

The Start-Up

Our initial meetings with the NMAH curators identified two issues that required fast management attention. The first, we were about one year late in starting the project, and the second, it was going to be far more expensive than our uneducated estimates anticipated.

The size of the available exhibit space, as in building a home, is a significant cost control factor. Initial estimates were that we could plan on about 3000 square feet-not much space for such a complex and significant story to be portrayed. It became immediately apparent that we needed help in guiding us through the unfamiliar minefields of the museology op areas. Ideally, we were told, the process would be to have a designer design the piece, and then hire a company to build and install it. Several interviews later, it was evident that this series approach would not achieve the schedule milestones. Fortunately, we found an outstanding local Virginia company, Design and Production, Inc., to design, produce and install the package, and, most importantly, they enjoyed a good reputation with the NMAH team. Initial scoping of the project revealed that it would cost in the neighborhood of $2,000,000 and could be ready to open in April 2000 with a very aggressive team approach.

Our next hurdle was to gain NMAH’s agreement to deviate from the traditional contract structure wherein the client (NSL) gives the money to the museum, which in tum hires and manages the contractor. Based on a growing understanding of the workings of the museum and the need to move quickly, we decided that the optimum arrangement would be for the NSL to contract separately with D&P and the NMAH. After much discussion, the NMAH curators agreed. A Letter of Agreement (LOA) with the museum is nearly completed that lays out the interfaces and procedures to be followed among the three participants. The LOA further guaranteed NMAH the final approval for everything that went into the exhibit. This approach resulted in a management teaming arrangement that bought all participants together early on, streamlining the management process, eliminating red tape, and most importantly, bringing the responsible people together to work the plan. Working closely with Dr. Steve Lubar and Dr. Paul Johnston of the Office of Curatorial Affairs, and Eleanor Boyne, the Project Manager, we have moved ahead and are confident of completing on schedule.

The Story

With our structure in place, the next issue was what goes inside it? Trust me, readers, there was no shortage of suggested topics and essential artifacts from the submarine community once the word got out of our plans. Many historians and retired submariners gave us valuable input that helped us shape the design concept. A Submarine Centennial Exhibition Advisory Panel was assembled, made up of members from the NMAH, the U.S. Naval Historical Center, the Navy Museum, the NSL, and other experts in the submarine role in the Cold War. Rear Admiral Shap Shapiro, former Director of Naval Intelligence, served as our intelligence mentor and filled the role of the wise man in some of our more contentious discussions.

Our first requirement was to educate our designers and curators in all aspects of submarines. With the help of N87 and the hospitality of several commands, we were able to have the team visit New London, Norfolk, and Bangor. They went aboard SEA-WOLF, TREPANG, POLK, and MICHIGAN in the course of their visits. Support activities at those sites also were part of their indoctrination. The team visited Electric Boat and Newport News and gained insights into the history and techniques of designing and building our ships. Trips to the Undersea Warfare Museum, Bangor, Washington, and the Nautilus Museum, Groton, Connecticut were especially valuable in focusing the views of the team.

These visits along with many meetings, papers, e-mails, phone calls, and briefings resulte

d in the Design Concept that is being produced today. The theme of the Exhibition was to portray the largely unheralded contributions of the Submarine Force during the Cold War period. Our SSBNs in the strategic role were a well-publicized arm of the Strategic Triad throughout the Cold War. On the other hand, our SSN operations have been rightfully kept in the classified world.

Underlying this theme was the need for visitors to understand the infrastructure that allowed us to develop, produce and man these incredible machines. So, we determined that in setting the scene for the telling of the mission story, we would show the following fundamental pieces:

  • Cold War History. A large segment of the viewers under 25 will have little or no understanding of the origins of issues in the Cold War.
  • U.S. and Soviet Submarines. Who were the players in this underwater duel that endured for more than 30 years? Where did they operate?
  • Submarine Weapons. Although none were fired in anger, the threat of the formidable array of missiles and torpedoes carried aboard our ships was a deterrent to Soviet aggression.
  • Submarine Construction. The ability to design and produce our quiet and swift submarines at high construction rates was critical to our victory.
  • Nuclear Propulsion. Our power plants-safe, quiet, and reliable-were an undergirding factor in every operation conducted by our subs in the Cold War.
  • Life on Board. As Sundance asked Butch in the film, Balch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys?” We plan on showing the visitors not only who 11those guys” were, but also will portray how they lived in crowded spaces, with few comforts, for months on end, and were always ready to carry out their missions.
  • The Minions. Although never asked in the movie, the key question for us will be, “What did those guys do?” We will not replay the recent best-selling book, Blind Man’s Bluff. We will, however, present operational vignettes, using videos and still photos that have recently been declassified by N87 and the Director of Naval Intelligence. This material from actual mission reports will be portrayed dramatically in the Attack Center portion of the show.
  • The Families. The girls we left behind were the anchors in our sailors’ lives. The story of their experiences and sacrifice will be revealed. The trials and tribulations, the coping, and the mutual support of the families ashore will also be a part of this story.
  • Present and Future. As the visitors exit the exhibit, there will be information describing the Submarine Force today and a preview of the new technology and submarine development efforts aimed at maintaining our undersea superiority.

The Audience

To tell such a story in a small space is a challenge that our design team met with ingenuity and creativity. Consideration of the audience became a dominant factor in our deliberations in pulling together the design. A few that were considered are listed below:

  • The audience will be predominately civilians, not submariners. The message here is, “Keep it simple!”
  • NMAH receives about 5 million visitors a year made up of a variety of age groups, educational backgrounds, and geographic origins. Thirty percent are under 24 years old and 38 percent are in the 25-44 age group.
  • Visitors average only 90 minutes at the NMAH. The Exhibit’s challenge is to capture as much of their time as possible to visit our exhibition.
  • The American Disabilities Act contains many specific guidelines that we must comply with within presenting visual and audio information.
  • Sensitivity to impact on the flow of visitors through the show influences the sequence and placement of exhibit artifacts and displays.
  • Sound management is critical to the presentation of audio/visual information. Interference among the audio experiences must be avoided.

The Hardware

Now that we understood the goals and the limitations of our project, the next step was to choose the best way to present the messages. Since we couldn’t fit a submarine into the small space, we chose to bring as many pieces as possible to add reality to the visitor’s experience. With the help of a number of Navy commands, we were given access to one of our nuclear submarines, USS TREPANG (SSN 674), which was soon to be deactivated at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Visits to the ship in Groton before it was decommissioned established a positive and cooperative attitude on the part of the ship’s company. Likewise, the personnel at Puget were briefed, and signed on willingly to handle the equipment removals with care. The Director of Strategic Systems agreed to support our efforts in the strategic submarine story by providing artifacts, models, and graphic materials. A visit to USS POLK (SSBN 645) resulted in a source of additional strategic submarine artifacts. Finally, USS SAND LANCE (SSN 660) was included as the source for the piece on nuclear propulsion.

Our exhibit will contain many items from TREPANG, POLK, and sand lance. A listing of the larger ones follows:

Watertight Door
Torpedo Storage Skid
Torpedo Loading Hatch
Bridge Access Hatch
Ballast Control Panel
Ship Control Station
ESM Console
Sonar Room
Trash Disposal Unit
Bunks from Crew’s Berthing
Mess Tables and Benches
Steam Control Panel*
Reactor Plant Control Panel*
Electric Plant Control Panel*
Periscopes (partial)

These three consoles required declassification. Our nuclear shipmates can appreciate the challenges faced by Naval Reactors engineers and security people in, for the very first time, deciding on how to present these panels to the general public. Additionally, our friends from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard assured safe handling by removing all three as a single unit, steel decks included, from sand lance. This became known to the EB and Sub Base personnel who would prepare the units for the Exhibition, as the “Big Box”-14,500 pounds in a container whose dimensions were 15’x7’xl0′! Not expecting the consoles to arrive in a single container, the repair people at the Sub Base were unable to fit the container through the door to the building set aside for the declassification. As a result, occupying at least three reserved parking spaces, it remained outside for the six winter weeks that an EB ┬ĚTiger Team did the declassifying work. A small entry door was cut in the side, and heat and light were installed inside the “Big Box”. After the job was completed, the Big Box was shipped to D&P in Lorton, Virginia where it now resides pending transfer to the Museum. We are making plans to donate the “Big Box” to the Habitat for Humanity as a prefab home for a small family!

To further recreate the feeling of being inside a submarine on patrol, we will also mount the smaller bits and pieces that surround these larger items: battle lanterns, telephones, valves, switches, EAB manifolds, lighting fixtures, cable and pipe runs, etc. Mk 48 torpedo and Tomahawk shapes will help in portraying to the visitor an understanding of the weapons, and their. The Shoreside Families piece will feature many personal artifacts such as old family grams, family photos, and other personal memorabilia.

The Medium

How will we bring this hardware to life and make it a dynamic pan of the story we are telling?

Thanks to modem technology and the imaginations of a lot of small people from the NMAH and our design team, we hope to provide a vivid audio/visual experience for the visitors. Well-written labels for the artifacts and graphics will allow the visitors to learn the meaning and value of the object or photo. Our plan includes a wide variety of interactive screens available to visitors to heighten their experience and understanding. Through the use of actual recorded shipboard sounds, periscope photography, sonar displays, lighting effects, and recorded voices we will portray life on board at work and play in a lively and thought-provoking manner.


Perhaps one of the most satisfying rewards for me in working on this project, has been the 100 percent willingness to support the Exhibition on the part of everyone that I have come in contact with during the past 16 months. Navy commands, contractors, historians, submarine officers and crews, the Smithsonian team, and many retired submariners have given freely of their time and resources to bring this idea to fruition. Rear Admiral Hank McKinney and Captain Peter Boyne have been active co-conspirators in the management and shaping of the project.

On April 12, 2000, the FAST ATTACKS AND BOOMERS; SUBMARINES IN THE COLD WAR Exhibition will formally open with an evening reception hosted by the NMAH and the NSL, beginning a minimum run of three years. We hope you can visit and relive some of your greatest moments as submariners and Cold War victors.

And, finally, if you have not yet made a contribution to the Submarine Centennial Fund, now is a good time to send in a check and help ensure that we can present this show as planned. We are still short of the funds needed to complete it.


Planning and preparations continue to unfold as 2000 approaches. The Submarine Force Centennial website will be accessible via the newly designed Navy Homepage: The Navy Homepage, with more than 4 million queries last month, will, for the first time, provide direct access to the Submarine Force Centennial site; the Submarine Warfare Division (N87) site; and the
Undersea Warfare magazine site and submarine-related Navy fact files . Once you access the Navy Homepage, click on THE SHIPS button; then click on the Submarine icon. You will then be able to choose from several interest areas of your choice.

If you choose to bookmark the only Submarine Force Centennial site URL for future access, use sub 100/html.

In the Submarine Force Centennial site, the Submarine Centennial Events page includes latest updates of significant Centennial ceremonies, tentative dates and locations. If you have further update information, please contact either CDR Mike Poirier, N87Cl (OPNAV Submarine Force Centennial Coordinator) (703) 697-1565 (e-mail: or CDR James Taylor, N87P (OPNAV Submarine Force Centennial Liaison Officer (703) 604-7828 (e-mail:

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