Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Portrait of a Lady

Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) Director Elizabeth A. Poulliot.  (Photograph by Diana Gordon)

By Joseph Judge 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Curator

Mrs. Elizabeth A. Poulliot – Becky – is closing a career in which she has faithfully served the United States Navy and the people of our region here at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Her oversight of this invaluable community institution has been a decades-long example of public service.

Becky with MGEN Dennis Murphy, former Executive Director of the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation.  “General Murphy we are going to need a lot of money for this Nauticus move.  I’m serious as a heart attack.”
Becky was hired by the Commander of the Norfolk Naval Base in 1989. As a Naval Base staff officer gleefully told me, referring to her previous employment with another branch of the service, “We stole her from the Army!”

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum at that time was ten years old. It was located in an historic building on the Naval Station – the former Pennsylvania state pavilion, a replica of Independence Hall. Its mission, according to the Atlantic Fleet Commander, was to “to publicize and enhance the Navy’s image not only in Tidewater but, through tourism, nationwide.”
A young staff in front of the Pennsylvania House just prior to moving downtown.  The three civilians, Becky, the author and Ofelia Elbo, were joined by LTJG Rob Haas, assigned to the staff by Commander Naval Base.  LT Hass was one a large group of military personnel working under Becky in a variety of tasks over the years.

Becky arrived in Norfolk to find not an example of a big museum with a nationwide profile but instead a small museum with a permanent staff of three. She was immediately given two important charges: to professionalize the museum’s basic operations in accordance with American Association of Museum standards, and to prepare the museum for a possible move to the new maritime center called “Nauticus” that the City of Norfolk was planning for the downtown waterfront.

She also brought her own style to the museum, which I witnessed when I called her one day to ask about a job. “How are things going?” Answer: “Great! The staff ordered pizza for lunch!” Those were the years of self-catered Christmas parties in the PA House. One memorable year we left a tray of Christmas spinach hors d'oeuvres in the oven and found them in February. That was the same kitchen with a small table at which the staff would gather for lunch and discuss the burning issues of the day, and eat the spicy food of the day. It was there we learned to reply not “Yes ma’am” but rather “Yes miss” to the director. “I’m not old enough to be called ma’am and I don’t like to hear it.” Aye aye.

Meanwhile, the operative word for the museum’s relocation was “possible” as negotiations for the future kicked into high gear. Moving a museum – forging a new relationship with a brand-new and controversial civilian entity- were daunting tasks, especially with a small staff. However, as FDR said, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. And Becky was a skilled sailor.

Becky immediately directed the staff to organize the museum’s collection for the new and expanded exhibits for Nauticus. She instituted the museum’s first automated collections management system and tackled the underwhelming storage facility (including rousting out sleeping naval personnel from that building), a former liquor store known in the alpha-numeric jargon of the base as G-29C. Great improvements were made in all important areas of museum management. She also fought pigeons in the clock tower and cleaned a chandelier.

In March, 1994, the Navy and the City of Norfolk reached a basic agreement on moving the Hampton Roads Naval Museum to Nauticus. This agreement was complex and Becky spent months representing the interests of the Navy and the taxpayers. She carried out this duty day after day through four years of serious negotiations. Memorably, she carried on while awaiting the birth of a daughter, while fighting a termite invasion, while moving, while enduring losses of loved ones, and while educating and re-educating new arrivals to the chain of command, as is the Navy way.
Things were different downtown, at first.  Some of the museum staff made a break for it one Harborfest.  Becky to the author: “Have you seen what’s going on out there?”  This was one of the many assignments/questions over the years, including the command to run after and stop US Senator John Warner.
The result was the first Department of Defense museum to relocate to a non-federal facility. This move was a model for the entire Department of Defense museum system and the terms of the agreement have saved taxpayers millions of dollars since 1994. The “new” Hampton Roads Naval Museum opened on June 1, 1994.

The move to Nauticus required a first-class museum education program to compliment the museum’s increases in size and importance. Becky recruited the first volunteer corps, the source of deep friendships and much joy in the years to come. The museum began offering professional programs and tours for children and adults. Over time the museum educators travelled to every school system in Hampton Roads. Additionally, the museum has welcomed important speakers on the history of the Navy. Some of the more important individuals who have spoken to the community under the museum’s banner include: John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy; James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy; Dr. Harold Langley, Curator Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution and Dr. James McPherson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. There were many others, including one who stood before the audience and intoned, “Now what do you want me to say?” As Becky told us all over the years, it’s good to laugh.

Becky worked for many different commands and leaders.  Here she is with her ideal model of a boss.  Admiral Jake Tobin, Admiral Tim Zeimer and CDR Jeremy Gillespie were close seconds.
The museum, now settled within the Nauticus building, also continued its series of successful temporary exhibits. Some of the more important included an exhibit on Lord Nelson, borrowed from the Royal Navy Museum; “Without Us They Don’t Fly: NADEP” (the Aircraft Maintenance Facility in Norfolk); “The Sailor’s Best Friend: Animals and the US Navy”; and “Cuba Libre: The Spanish American War.”

By 1998 Becky had successfully accomplished the two tasks that the Navy had asked of her in 1989. Before she could rest on her laurels, however, another assignment appeared. In November of that year the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet resolved to move the inactive battleship USS Wisconsin next door to Nauticus and to open it under Hampton Roads Naval Museum auspices as a tourist attraction. The museum was charged with managing the ship – in essence, its largest artifact.

Becky again directed her staff in a herculean task: the production of an interpretive plan for a battleship, including a tour route, volunteer assignments; exhibits; military ceremony policies and a host of other important and pressing issues. When the ship arrived in her new layberth on December 7, 2000, she was poised to be the most successful tourist attraction in the state of Virginia. Indeed in 2001 over 400,000 people walked the teak decks of the ship in only nine months. Her staff now required a military/civilian watchbill with over 22 names.

Her true happiness in work was in the people around her, like long-time volunteer and Board member Hunt Lewis.  “I can’t come to that meeting, I’m eating lunch with the volunteers today.”
Years of hard work were recognized in December, 2008, when HRNM was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the 4th Navy museum, and the second museum Southside to earn this accomplishment (the first being the Chrysler Museum of Art.) Accreditation is the gold standard for museum excellence in the United States.

In the midst of the accreditation process and managing a battleship, Becky shepherded the museum through a re-alignment in which all Navy museums were placed under the Naval Historical Center (later the Naval History and Heritage Command). She was thus in a position to assist the Navy’s national historical programs. Another change occurred in December 2009, when the Navy donated the Wisconsin to the City of Norfolk. HRNM continues to offer military ceremonies on the ship as a benefit to the region’s active duty Sailors.

It has been said by the writer David Brooks that life is a process of commitment making. And further said that character is defined by deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good. Becky made commitments to the Navy and the people of Hampton Roads. She built connections among many groups to the benefit of all. Museums are her calling, and while her retirement is a loss for HRNM, her legacy is on view every day at the museum. That is quite the journey from a young lady with a staff of three in 1989.

“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

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