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CHIPS Articles: The Guardian of Naval History

The Guardian of Naval History
Unraveling the story behind each weapon
By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin J. Steinberg, Defense Media Activity - April 6, 2015
For some people, collecting weapons is not only a hobby but an obsession. For one staff member at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) in Washington D.C., it's not only an obsession, but a paid gig.

NHHC boasts a two-level vault that's packed from floor to ceiling, and that doesn't even include their weapons on display at the Naval Museum or on loan to other museums.

"We have approximately 1,200 small arms located here," explained curator Julie Kowalsky from inside the center's vault. "Most of them are functional small arms; they're not de-militarized in any way."

The Navy's weapon collection covers everything someone could imagine, including Japanese Samurai swords, rocket launchers, Gatling guns, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, homemade weapons, antique firearms and diver guns. Also in the collection are extremely rare guns no one will see anywhere else, like prototypes.

But the Navy's collection is not just simply neat weaponry; it's a part of history. With each weapon, comes a story and a reminder of how time has changed and different historical events.

Kowalsky has been a federal employee since 2009. A native of Pontarddulais, Wales, she came to the United States in 2000 with her future husband who was an American working for Lockheed-Martin, in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She originally started as a volunteer at NHHC in 2004.

The collection started during the Civil War period by Adm. John Dahlgren who was head of the Bureau of Ordinance at the Washington Navy Yard. He was collecting weapons to look into future weapons development for the Navy. Dahlgren also invented some original weaponry of his own, which can be found in the vault Kowalsky oversees and also at the Smithsonian.

"The types of things that we collect are one-of-a-kind weapons that show the evolution of weapons usage in the U.S. Navy and weapons that our allies or our enemies would have used in warfare," said Kowalsky.

When items come in, it's not always easy to identify what they are or where the item has been. In which case, it then becomes Kowalsky's job to find out those things, something she is not only passionate about but also loves doing.

"It's finding a new artifact that maybe hasn't been seen for a while and just exploring and finding out about that for my own personal perspective," said Julie. "I like to work on artifacts from a preventative conservation point of view so that we maintain them for the next generation."

When it comes to conserving artifacts, it's easier said than done. Things as simple as dust will eventually scratch metal while other things like ultraviolet light and humidity will damage textiles and paper. If someone touches a sword without wiping off the finger print, the print will eventually over time become etched into the metal. Not to mention having to conserve for unique aspects of the artifacts like sword handles that are made with shark skin. So if an item is displayed, it has to be in the right conditions. If not, the item risks becoming damaged.

"The most fragile type of artifacts are paper and textiles," said Kowalsky. "Light will damage those artifacts and there's no going back from the damage that's been done to them."

If a uniform fades, there's no such thing as re-dying it back to its original glory. It's gone forever.

Among the challenges of conservation, Kowalsky also has to contend with space restraints. At times, they have to reject taking in some items due to space or the contents of the item. Once they had to reject a World War II life raft first aid kit due to it having morphine in it.

"There's morphine in those kits and morphine is still a class 1 drug, even if it's from World War II," said Kowalsky. "We don't want to take that into the collection because dealing with the morphine is another whole issue of legislation and tracking."

While they may not take everything, condition does not always play a part in whether or not they take in an item. History does not always come neat and clean.

"Even if it's in really poor condition, if it still has some historical value that can aid research then we would ask a conservator to look at it and then stop the degradation, to stabilize the object and then we would just rehouse it and make sure it's stored in a relatively good climate and proper packaging so that nothing worse happened to it and then we can still use it for historical research," said Kowalsky.

While space and proper conditions are a problem, things have improved since Kowalsky first came to NHHC. Making it so that future generations and researchers can enjoy these items and learn where we came from and get inspiration for where we are going.

"The collection is there for researchers to come and have a look at and to learn about the weapons and the ordnance within the collection," said Kowalsky.

Any collection has to be cared for by someone who is passionate. Thankfully, the Navy has Kowalsky; assuring that their collection will be around for many more generations of Sailors and researchers to enjoy.

To donate items, contact NHHC at nhhcurator@navy.mil.

Julie Kowalsky. Image courtesy of All Hands Magazine.
Julie Kowalsky. Image courtesy of All Hands Magazine.
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