The USS Yorktown at Patriots Point

Review

of an Exhibition

by Matt Kirchman

Published on April 06, 2012

  • Description:

    I toured the USS Yorktown in March, 2012… and I can’t stop thinking about it. I was invited aboard the ship to consider what kinds of improvements might make the aircraft carrier more exciting, educational, honorable, accessible, and memorable as a museum and attraction.

    The approach to Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, where the ship is located, is a magnificent experience. The scale and perceived importance of the artifacts, including the carrier, a destroyer, and a submarine, are immense and powerful. I expected the encounter aboard the USS Yorktown to be grand and important. I was not disappointed.

    Once inside the ship, the hangar deck (a sheltered “parking garage” for airplanes), greeted me with a dozen our so such planes (including a F4U Corsair and a F6F Hellcat) and many scale models of ships and small-scale memorial exhibits. I could see a flight simulator buzzing and rocking, an apparently new exhibit about the Medal of Honor, and a model of the Apollo 8 space capsule. There was a large theater that was running what appeared to be a full-length movie and nearby: a model of the Wright Flyer.

    Based on my first impressions, I suspect that newcomers find it difficult to navigate the ship intellectually. There are few orientation cues and no strong sense of interpretive structure: no obvious overarching ideas, few thematic groupings, and a unified voice for the visitors’ experience is not apparent.

    Many formal exhibits, staged in various rooms have a piecemeal look to them, appearing to be “labors of love” from various organizations and individuals. These displays, while charming enough (they are hand-stitched, hand-lettered, and often affixed with tape or screws) contribute to the humanization of the ship, but detract from any sense of unity. That said, I fully enjoyed them for their personal quality.

    Contrary to this, the physical experience is absolutely unrivaled. I honestly have never experienced anything like my visit to the USS Yorktown. I was provided with an experience that most museums struggle to create through exhibition design: authentic artifact interrogation and a sense of “felt meaning.” I was able to climb narrow stairways, descend deep into the engine room, wander the crew’s berth rooms, and tour the expansive flight deck. My senses were filled with spectacular views, the sounds of historic communication, and the smell of oily engines. I touched everything… even took a seat in the pilot’s chair and barked “orders” through a speaking tube.

    In revamping the visitors’ experience at the USS Yorktown I hope to see:

    • A cleaner and more organized arrival sequence;

    • A compelling and meaningful orientation experience that organizes the visit, communicating the historical, technological, and personal significance of the USS Yorktown;

    • Integrated science and social history content;

    • A respectful plan for the inclusion of “synthetic” experiences like flight simulators and food service amenities;

    • A more “textural” interpretive experience – one where dramatic theater, sound and light, entertaining role play, and serious history are intertwined.

    The Yorktown is one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II for the United States Navy. She was commissioned in April 1943, and participated in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, earning 11 battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation.

    She was modernized and recommissioned in the early 1950s as an attack carrier and then eventually became an antisubmarine carrier. She was recommissioned too late to participate in the Korean War but served for many years in the Pacific, including duty in the Vietnam War, in which she earned five battle stars. Late in her career she served as a recovery ship for the Apollo 8 space mission, was used in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! which recreated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and in the science fiction film The Philadelphia Experiment.

    Yorktown was decommissioned for the last time in 1970 and in 1975 became a museum ship at Patriot’s Point, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She is a National Historic Landmark.

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