Written by Arlyn Danielson, Coast Guard curator.
The United States Coast Guard and its predecessor services have served our nation for more than 220 years. Starting with a small fleet of ships enforcing customs and tariffs, the service quickly established itself as a viable force. Over the years the Coast Guard has evolved but our heritage and traditions remain the same.
One place where these traditions are kept alive is the Coast Guard Exhibit Center in Forestville, Md. The center is where the Coast Guard stores, organizes, cares for and preserves the bulk of the service’s heritage assets that are not on loan.
The Coast Guard Exhibit Center never knows what artifact might show up on their doorstep on any given day. A box may arrive from a distant Coast Guard unit containing documents chronicling a unit’s history. Or they might receive a package of a variety of tools once used every day by service members, but now considered artifacts in our history.
Artifacts include everything from the very popular and historically significant Fresnel lens, down to pottery shards and archaeological specimens dug from light stations around the U.S., including Governor’s Island, N.Y.
Other heritage assets on hand include navigational instruments, artwork, uniforms, flags, medals, lighthouse artifacts and maritime objects from cutters spanning decades. While most of the artifacts in the historic artifact collection are already on loan to other museums, various operational units and lighthouse organizations, many of the remaining artifacts at the center are awaiting funding for future conservation and restoration work.
One common question the center gets is, “What constitutes a heritage asset?” The answer is almost anything made or used by the Coast Guard or its predecessor services. The staff at the center looks at a number of factors in deciding what items or possible donations can be added to the historic asset collection. These determinants include rarity, use, age, condition, provenance, historic connections to people and locations in addition to what we already have in the collection.
This past year has been a busy one at the center regarding acquisitions and donations. They saw a vast range of artifacts coming in, each telling its own unique story in the service’s past. Some of their more significant additions include:
- Joseph Jenkins collection: Jenkins was the first recognized African American sea service officer in U.S. History. He was also the first African American to receive training at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in the Reserve Officer Training Program. During WWII Jenkins served aboard the USS Sea Cloud and USS Hoquiam, two of the first integrated naval vessels in our country’s history.
- 6th order Fresnel lens: designed for use in lighthouses and dating back to the 1870’s, the lens was made by L. Sautter of Paris, France.
- 1st order Cape Ann lens: designed for use in lighthouses dating back to 1861. The lens was originally from Thacher Island, Mass., and until June 2011, was on display at the U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London, Conn.
- Emergency steering wheel from the WWII cutter, George W. Campbell: used to steer Campbell after the ship was disabled during a February 1943 battle with a German u-boat.
- The unforgettable Capt. Cluck: the hardworking, fun-loving and well-connected mascot of Coast Guard Aviation Forces.
As the center looks to receiving new artifacts in 2012, they do so in the hopes that they can preserve the Coast Guard’s rich history, honoring our profession and upholding powerful traditions.