New London - When U.S. Coast Guard Museum volunteers helped move stored artifacts last month, they discovered a mural beneath a large basket that the Vietnamese had used as a boat during the Vietnam War.
They started to pull the mural down from the top shelf, but stopped when they realized what it was and called for curator Jen Gaudio.
Gaudio said she nearly had a heart attack when she saw the mural that had been painted by an artist working for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. No one had seen the mural in at least a decade, she said, because a curator's first rule is to move artifacts as infrequently as possible to prevent damage. The storage room was emptied in February so the heating and air conditioning system could be replaced.
"I was very happy to find it but I was also terrified because I had no place to put it," she said. "It's beautiful."
The mural and other artifacts at the 4,000-square-foot Coast Guard Museum at the Coast Guard Academy should have a new and bigger home soon.
On Friday, city and Coast Guard officials will gather in New London to announce a site for a new 50,000-square-foot National Coast Guard Museum. The site is expected to be a parcel of waterfront property adjacent to the train station downtown.
Gaudio plans to meet with the Coast Guard's other curator, Arlyn Danielson, in April to discuss the future of the Coast Guard's collection and how it might be displayed in the new museum.
Once restored, the mural certainly will be a highlight in the new museum, Gaudio said.
The mural depicts surfmen from the U.S. Life Saving Service carrying survivors from a lifeboat. It most likely was peeled off a wall at one of the early Coast Guard stations and attached to plywood, Gaudio said. Many WPA murals were destroyed in the process of being moved.
Gaudio said that because of a lack of exhibit space, she has to keep many artifacts in storage or loan them to other museums to be displayed.
"You're always out of room," she said. "We could fill 50,000 square feet, no problem."
A recent audit showed that the Coast Guard has about 20,000 artifacts, 6,458 of which are housed at the Coast Guard Academy. Many of the earliest artifacts are at the academy, including a 6-foot musket owned by the family of Hopley Yeaton, the first commissioned officer in the Revenue Cutter Service, which later became the Coast Guard.
Gaudio said she knew the musket dated to the Revolutionary War, but she only discovered the connection to Yeaton in February while working on the audit. The musket is in a box in the 500-square-foot storage room. Many fragile, grass baskets given to Coast Guardsmen by Native Americans are on the storage shelves.
Other artifacts are kept at Coast Guard stations across the country. Gaudio is surveying the stations to figure out what they have and what can be moved to the new museum.
The exhibits in the current museum were designed so they could be broken down and transported, Gaudio said.
Two items definitely will move, she said. The first is a 16th century Japanese sword surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur by Imperial Japanese Vice Adm. Hisashi Mito. MacArthur gave the sword to the Coast Guard in recognition of its valiant service in the Pacific. The second is the Medal of Honor awarded to Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, who died Sept. 27, 1942, evacuating a detachment of Marines on Guadalcanal. Munro is the only Coast Guardsman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.
The academy has not said how the museum space in Waesche Hall will be used after the National Coast Guard Museum is built. Gaudio said she's thrilled to have more space to tell the Coast Guard's story.