Yunker on Hruska, 'Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites'

Benjamin J. Hruska
Ian Yunker

Benjamin J. Hruska. Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016. 150 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4422-6368-0.

Reviewed by Ian Yunker (University of Alabama) Published on H-War (April, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version:

Combating Sea Blindness through Public History

The importance of the oceans to our security and economic prosperity is too often unappreciated by the public. Naval and maritime events in distant waters all too easily occur out of sight and mind, making it difficult to challenge this “sea blindness.” This poses a particular challenge for interpreting naval history, a subject that usually lacks preserved battlefields. In this innovative and engaging work of public history, Benjamin J. Hruska reveals the problems and opportunities of such interpretation and issues a clarion call for public historians to “challenge the notion that history ends at the beach or the dock” (p. 2). Engaging with scholarship that links memory formation to specific sites, Hruska argues that naval interpreters must embrace the mobile nature of naval activity and that the “ultimate challenge” is bringing “stability to naval history” (p. 9). To facilitate this, he suggests embracing the “contested nature” (p. 3) of memory and naval history and utilizing innovative techniques and methods of interpretation that can succeed in both engaging the public and asking larger historical questions reflecting the depth and breadth of the subject. The book takes a wide-ranging approach and examines a plethora of case studies from around the world. It ultimately concludes that the keys to success include making the most innovative and broad use of the available platform, ensuring collections are as inclusive as possible, and having a variety of public programs utilizing multiple avenues of engagement with naval history.

Although primarily aimed at museum professionals and other public historians, Hruska’s book draws inspiration from global history’s understanding of oceans and waterways as highways that link people rather than barriers. He also engages with studies of myth-making and historical memory, particularly the work of scholars such as Pierre Nora, Joseph Amato, Kristen Ann Hass, and Michael Kammen. Hruska structures the book around for key themes: commemoration, objects, exhibition, and public memorials, though he stresses these are not mutually exclusive and that all might be occurring at a particular site. The bulk of the work consists of a series of case studies that Hruska examines in the context of the particular theme. These contain a mix of history, memory analysis, anecdote, and the details of particular exhibitions. In many of the case studies, Hruska includes a set of best practices that hammer home the lessons for interpretation in bullet points. The multitude of case studies is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Hruska succeeds brilliantly in casting a wide net and highlighting the range of approaches available. That said, the case studies often seem unending, and some are more detailed, and presumably more useful, than others. Only brief summaries of a few key examples can be included here.

In the opening section on commemoration, Hruska examines a variety of “inventive methodologies” (p. 39) used at interpretive sites that “bridge the factor of the ocean” (p. 17) by using symbolic meaning to make connections between the public and concepts such as victory, communal loss, and shared national experience. He highlights the display of the World War II submarine USS Batfish in Oklahoma as the center for a diverse and multifaceted historical park that commemorates Oklahoma’s broad connections to military history, including the Mexican-American War, Indian Wars, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In a more specific example, the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor serves as the focal point for commemoration of the entire attack on Hawaii, while its anchor at the Arizona state capital functions as a memorial to veterans of all American wars. Hruska turns to Japan for two of the most interesting examples in the section. In the Yamato Kure Maritime museum, a one-tenth-scale model of the World War II battleship Yamato commemorates not the wars of imperial Japan, but instead the pioneering Japanese maritime technology later used for peaceful purposes. In contrast, the HIJMS Mikasa, a flagship from the Russo-Japanese War, commemorates the imperial period of both nations. Finally, a museum in Scranton, Arizona focuses on Native America Iwo Jima flag-bearer Ira Hayes to interpret the war through the tribal history of the Pima people.

Turning to objects, Hruska explores how small objects from naval service take on a “remarkable amount of meaning” and the ways veterans use them as “ignition points for conversations” and create their own memorials (p. 43). He argues that objects, be they ships’ bells or small personal relics, “fill the void of meaning” (p. 44) left by ships long gone and battlefields far away. Hruska highlights the case of the USS Block Island, an escort carrier lost during the war. With most wartime paraphernalia lost with the ship, any surviving artifact, from boots to fuel-stained underwear, later took on great significance. Veterans donated many of these artifacts to a local museum in Block Island, Rhode Island, thus anchoring their war experiences within the local history of their ship’s namesake. A naval vessel considered as an object often comes to symbolize much more than her role in conflict. Hruska explores how the Russian cruiser Aurora evolved from a warship to a platform of memory, first for the October Revolution of 1917 and then later the history of the Russian navy itself. In Pakistan, the submarine Hangor represented one of the sole successes in an otherwise losing war, consequently receiving preservation as a symbol of national commitment to the defeat of rival India. Throughout, Hruska stresses the power and versatility of naval objects large and small.

In considering exhibitions, Hruska emphasizes the “fragility of memory” (p. 70) and argues in favor of innovative and diverse means of connecting naval history broadly understood to a twenty-first century audience. Exhibitions at Battleship Cove in Massachusetts and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York earn praise for hands-on experiences, public engagement through youth sleepovers, interactive exhibitions, and use of technology to recreate something of the experience of being at Pearl Harbor or facing a kamikaze attack. On a smaller scale, the Custom House Museum in New London, CT, incorporates an exhibit of nautical-themed toys geared toward young children and succeeds by skillfully pairing historical objects with modern culture. Hruska uses the USS Yorktown in Charleston, SC, as a case study of the challenges in deciding what era to emphasize when exhibiting a long-serving ship, and the importance of settling on a central curatorial theme. Still, he argues that compartments on ships offer opportunity, as shown by compartments on some aircraft-carrier museums dedicated to specific aspects of naval history such as escort carriers or refueling tankers, ships that lack their own preserved memorials.

Turning last to public memorials, Hruska emphasizes the “self-memorialization” (p. 104) of veterans and others that tied aspects of a society’s naval past to civil space, as well as continuing to highlight innovative methods of interpretation. For example, the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand has a memorial sculpture, the reef-diving spot formed by the sunken hull of the Greenpeace vessel, and an online digital memorial that blends the history of the vessel with exploration of the natural environment of the site. Hruska also considers ship reunions and suggests that embracing those seeking the history of relatives they never knew offers a fertile ground for public historians to continue memorialization after the veterans themselves are gone. Naval vessels also function as memorials for multiple experiences, as in the case of the corvette HMCS Sackville. The centerpiece of the proposed Battle of the Atlantic Place, the ship will be a memorial to the ship itself, others of its class, Canada’s war dead, and all who fought in that expansive theater. Sometimes these memorials come to serve causes unimaginable to the original purpose of the ship. This is the case for the New England whaler Charles W. Morgan, now both a symbol of that history and a means of promoting maritime environmental causes, and the First World War German Naval Memorial, now dedicated as a peace memorial to all who died in both world wars.

Hruska has produced an informative book filled with interesting case studies from around the world that reveals just how diverse and innovative interpretations of naval history can be. Overall, the book will be most valuable to public historians and those interested in working in museums. It can also serve as a valuable text for anyone interested in examining historical memory and memorialization in a naval context.              


Citation: Ian Yunker. Review of Hruska, Benjamin J., Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Thanks for the review. I've put it on my to "read list."