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Museo Naval—Spain’s naval history museum

Museo Naval in Madrid Holds Its Own, US Naval Institute, July 2024

By Captain Walker Mills, U.S. Marine Corps.

A gallery in the Museo Naval with a mural depicting Spanish voyages of discovery. Photos courtesy of the author.

Just two blocks north of the world-famous Prado Museum on Paseo del Prado in Madrid is the Museo Naval—Spain’s naval history museum. Easy to overlook among Madrid’s wealth of world-class museums and attractions, the Museo Naval is an excellent naval history museum in a location that makes it an easy addition to any trip in Madrid.

The museum is run by the Spanish Ministry of Defense and is adjacent to the headquarters of the Spanish Navy. The museum traces its origins to an initiative in 1792 by then–Navy Secretary Antonio de Valdés and Fernández Bazán, who established the initial collections to help educate Spain’s maritime workforce. In 1932, the museum moved to its current location on the beautiful and leafy Paseo del Prado boulevard, and the most recent major renovation was completed in 2020, after the museum closed its doors for two years.

Today, the Museo Navaldelivers a high-quality experience with modern, updated galleries. The museum is fronted with a modern, woodlike façade that is interesting but also seems a bit out of place among the marble and masonry of downtown Madrid. Visitors start their tour by climbing three flights up a wooden staircase that evokes the sailing ships of the Spanish Empire. The museum also has elevator access and is accessible throughout.

Inside the museum, the exhibits are in chronological order, starting with the 13th through 15th centuries, when Spanish power—especially Spanish naval power—was on the rise. Then, visitors are treated to the highlights of Spanish imperial maritime power, including artifacts related to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, between a league of Catholic states and the Ottoman Empire, and the famous map of Juan de la Cosa, which is the first-known cartographic representation of the Americas, from 1500.

The Museo Naval is a large museum with more than 12,000 artifacts. A naval enthusiast could easily spend two or more hours winding through the exhibits, and most of the text is written in both Spanish and English. The museum also has rare book and historical document collections that are available to researchers by appointment.

Highlights of the collection are exhibits that illuminate parts of lesser-known naval history or add a Spanish perspective to well-known maritime events. Large oil paintings cover the walls of the museum and depict everything from battles to key naval leaders and remind visitors that commissioned paintings were an important way for Spain to convey its wealth and maritime power. The museum is not just focused on naval history, but also presents a broader maritime history of Spain. Exhibits also display beautiful artifacts from Spain’s voyages of discovery and scientific expeditions.

One particularly good collection is dedicated to underwater archaeology and the Philippines’ place in Spain’s colonial empire. The exhibit room contains a wealth of artifacts, coins, weapons, Chinese pottery, and porcelain ceramics recovered from the wreck of the San Diego—one of the Spanish “Manila galleons” that sunk off the island of Fortuna in the Philippines in 1600. Elsewhere in the museum there are smaller exhibits that add a Spanish naval perspective to the American Revolution, the Battle of Trafalgar, the revolutions in South America, and the Spanish-American War.

Another highlight is the museum’s enormous collection of ship models. While it is difficult to get a count, there are easily more than 100 models of Spanish naval vessels from the 16th century to the present. The models are beautiful artifacts themselves, but they also tell a story of naval and technological development that is somewhat different than what students of U.S. naval history are familiar with. In the years after the Civil War, naval development in the United States languished and did not revive until the end of the 19th century, but during the same time, Europe was a cradle of naval innovation.

One of the things a visitor will miss, compared to other naval and maritime history museums, is any full-size historical vessels or reconstructions. Even though their absence can be excused by the Museo Naval’s location in downtown Madrid, hundreds of miles from the sea, it is difficult to deliver the awe that other world-class naval museums can offer visitors when they step inside a vessel. Throughout the exhibits there also seems to be an understandable tendency to downplay the low points in Spanish naval history, which can frustrate visitors who may be particularly interested in the Spanish experience at Trafalgar or the Spanish Navy’s role in the Latin American wars for independence.

An exhibition room with 19th-century paintings, artifacts, and ship models.
Overall, the Museo Naval is an excellent naval museum in the heart of Madrid. Naval history buffs who find themselves in Madrid cannot afford to miss the museum, especially when it is only steps from other major attractions, such as the Prado and Buen Retiro Park, and easily accessible by bus or metro from elsewhere in the city. The recently renovated museum treats visitors to a modern experience of hundreds of years of naval history from one of the world’s greatest maritime empires.

 

Museo Naval

Paseo del Prado, 3, 28014
Madrid, Spain

Cost: 3 Euro suggested donation
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 1000-1900; reduced hours in August and for holidays armada.defensa.gob.es/ ArmadaPortal/page/Portal/ ArmadaEspannola/cienciaorgano/
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Captain Walker Mills, U.S. Marine Corps
Capt Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer and MQ-9A pilot.