Preface: I volunteer on a weekly basis as a tour guide on the USS Blueback.
On Monday 17th, The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) unveiled a newly revitalized exhibit in the museum lobby dedicated to the USS Blueback. The exhibit is expected to reconnect with the community and drive interest in one of the museum’s most iconic permanent features.
The USS Blueback (SS-581) is a former US Naval submarine that was graciously donated to OMSI in 1994 following a rigorous campaign by the city and the museum. Prior to its re-purposing as a museum vessel, the Blueback served as a Fast Attack Submarine in the US Navy. As the last of three Barbel-class submarines (though the second one to be designed and built), the USS Blueback was built in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Built in 1957 the Blueback (named for a breed of Chinook salmon) served in the Pacific after being commissioned in 1959. Stationed between San Diego, Pearl Harbor and Yokuska, Japan the Blueback enjoyed a 30 year career before it was decommissioned in 1990. When it was removed from the fleet, the Blueback was notable for being the last non-nuclear combat submarine in the US Navy. The USS Dolphin, a research vessel, was the actual last non-nuclear submarine in the US Navy when it was decommissioned in 2007.
In 1994, OMSI towed the BlueBack to Portland, welded it to the side of a dock, and carved a large hole into the side of the vessel to install a tourist entrance. Ever since, the Blueback has lived a second life as the most modern museum submarine in the United States. The submarine is staffed by employees and volunteers that provide tours to museum visitors. The average tour is between 40 and 50 minutes. Guides cover the general aspects of the submarine including equipment and the life on board the boat. On a monthly basis, the submarine provides a pair of days for guests to take technical tours of the boat. These are approximately 3 hours long and go in-depth. Both types of tours are popular, and while SS-581 might not have the draw of a USS Midway or Intrepid, the boat receives up to 500 people per day during peak season. If there was one criticism to be made of the Blueback, the submarine didn’t have the best advertising. It’s a big ticket feature of the museum but was hardly referenced amidst the advertisements for IMAX movies or the current Featured Exhibit. But with the installation of the new lobby exhibit, the Blueback is poised to receive a new influx of interest from visitors.
The new exhibit was built for $120,000, with 50 percent of the funding come from a grant from the State of Oregon. The space was built from the ground up in what used to be the queuing area for the submarine tours. In the past, the sub queue consisted of several nondescript benches and a mock-up of a submarine hatch. While there was some signage it wasn’t particularly noticeable amidst the larger background of the museum. In contrast, the new exhibit is vibrant and visually pops. Most of the exhibit on the Blueback is cast in appropriately dark blues. Against the bright red of the OMSI lobby, it’s instantly noticeable and eye catching. The exhibit itself consists of a newly redone mock hatch (now outlined by a life-sized picture of the kind of the metal surrounding a hatch on-board) and a large, beautifully drawn diagram on the sub, complete with an internal cross-section highlighting the multiple compartments in easily defined colors. Flanking the diagram are older pictures of the sub throughout its life span. Surrounding the dark blue wall are pictures of sea life, painted directly on the windows behind the exhibit. Even approaching the museum from the rear entrance, you can see the back of the exhibit and an inviting advertisement for the Blueback tours. But in addition to showcasing the boat and making a case to buy a ticket, the exhibit also fits into OMSI’s broader philosophy of hands-on learning.
Built into the exhibit are a pair of hands-on features that educate visitors on aspects of the submarine. The first, moving from left to right, is a very narrow wheel filled with water. Inside the wheel are a trio of smaller circles decorated like little submarines. Just like the larger apparatus, the little subs are filled with varying amounts of water, illustrating how submarines like the USS Blueback can adjust their own buoyancy by filling or emptying their ballast tanks. The entire apparatus can also be rotated to demonstrate how the subs will drift to different depths within the tiny aquarium. The second feature is a complicated game of sounds. The game uses sounds recorded while using a passive sonar system and challenges the listener to match sounds with their sources. A keen-eared guest will have to identify a variety of sounds including tug boats, dolphins, humpbacked whales and even popcorn shrimp. With brightly color buttons, a large chunky interface and flashy lights, this portion of the exhibit is guaranteed to attract younger guests in particular.
The exhibit isn’t without some minor flaws. On my visit, the sound-matching game broke under the strain of what was assumed to be some particularly enthusiastic young guests. And while the presentation of the exhibit is spot-on, I’ve heard criticism. The exhibit elaborates on the design and construction of the vessel but it doesn’t touch upon the Blueback’s military history. But whatever the case, this new exhibit demonstrates a new show of commitment from the Museum as a whole. It’s a gesture of good faith to continue marketing the Blueback as an attraction at OMSI. Which is fantastic, because the USS Blueback is an iconic part of the east Portland waterfront on the Willamette River and deserves to have an audience for as long as possible.
Tours of the USS Blueback happen daily, starting from 10AM and continuing until 5:30 PM through summer. Tickets are $6.50 and can be bought at the museum or via the OMSI website.