“I believe that what is past is not over,” said Coast Guard Museum curator Jen Gaudio. “History is the foundation of the present. You can trace practically anything back to the root cause and origin in the past.”
The idea that history sets the context for the present is something that has motivated Gaudio throughout most of her career. Now retired after more than 13 years of service, she is the longest-serving permanent curator of the museum, which is located on the grounds of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
Established in 1966, the museum holds roughly 6,800 artifacts detailing the history of the service, including the original figurehead from America’s Tall Ship Barque Eagle, which hangs as if still mounted on the bow of the cutter.
Before coming to work for the Coast Guard, Gaudio served as curator at the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum, the Lynn Museum & Historical Society in Lynn, Mass., and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Va.
At the Coast Guard Museum, Gaudio accepted and carefully preserved significant artifacts, such as a set of nautical charts used onboard a landing craft during D-Day that were kept by a Coast Guard coxswain who piloted one of the vessels during the invasion.
During her tenure she oversaw a $300,000, year-long museum renovation project in 2012 which was completed with support from the Academy and the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Governmental and Public Affairs.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy served as guest speaker during the museum's grand opening at the completion of the renovation project. The facility averaged about 13,000 visitors per year before the pandemic. According to museum records, more than 100,000 visitors have visited the renovated gallery in the last 10 years.
In 2013 Gaudio appeared on an episode of the Mysteries at the Museum program on the Travel Channel to explain the historical significance of the Overland Relief Expedition and display the snowshoes Ellsworth Bertholf used to travel 1,600 miles to rescue a group of trapped whalers.
The following year she coordinated an extensive exhibit at the museum highlighting the little known mission of the Coast Guard Cutter Courier, which served as a mobile broadcasting base for the Voice of America in the 1950’s, sending information beyond the iron curtain to counter Soviet propaganda. The exhibit also served as a reunion for the ship’s crewmembers, family and friends who flocked to the museum for the opening of the exhibit.
“As a lifelong student of leadership, I note Jen's exceptional qualities as an inspirational leader. She's principle-centered, people-oriented, positive, purposeful, and passionate,” said retired Vice Adm. Manson Brown. “And she's made a positive and lasting difference in expanding the scope and reach of our museum.”
In 2018 Gaudio contacted Brown for Coast Guard material to include in an exhibit “Take Our Stand: African American Military Service in the Age of Jim Crow” by the American Civil War Center. Brown, who retired a few years earlier as the top-ranking African American officer in the service, said he was inspired by her efforts to ensure the exhibit, “reflected the rich diversity of our Coast Guard.”
Gaudio also hosted visits from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as a number of foreign military dignitaries at the museum.
Her belief in the power of history to connect people to the present led her to work with Officer Candidate School (OCS) instructors to create a popular program to educate officer candidates training at the Academy.
“I thought a lot about the collection’s purpose, and I felt that having the museum on Academy grounds was perfect to experiment with those members of the Coast Guard community who had little experience with their history and probably didn’t know that the heritage asset collection existed,” she said.
Allowing Coast Guard officers in training to physically interact with artifacts at the Museum, under supervision of the curator, served to consolidate and solidify their experience with the service’s history. “That is the whole reason the heritage asset collection exists,” Gaudio said. Officer candidates consistently rated the history class Gaudio helped to create as one of the best experiences in the 17-week program.
Gaudio, who has been battling early onset Parkinson's disease for many years, underwent two deep brain stimulation surgeries in 2015. She returned to work 30 days after the first procedure, and 45 days after the second, with her strong work ethic intact.
However, as the years passed the disease continued to progress, which led to her recent retirement from government service.
“Jen made it a point to interact with the staff, cadet corps, officer candidates, and NOAA personnel to instill in them an appreciation for the service’s history and its cultural heritage,” said Scott Price, U.S. Coast Guard Chief Historian. “Her work with young cadets will ensure her legacy will be intact for decades yet to come.”