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History in Storage : 87 Years’ Worth of Oxnard’s Past Is Tucked Away Without a Keeper

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since volunteers from the Oxnard Historical Society stopped showing up to run the city’s historical museum, hundreds of faded photos, yellowing newspaper clips and aging mementos have been collecting dust in the basement of the Carnegie Art Museum.

Old yearbooks, graying posters and stiff Army uniforms--representing 87 years of city history--have been kept in glass cases for more than a decade. But for the past year, there has been no one to watch over the museum and no one to give visitors a look at the hundreds of historical artifacts.

“It’s not open because the historical society had been responsible, and basically the materials belong to them,” said Gary Davis, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which owns and operates the Carnegie Art Museum.

The city had agreed to let the Historical Society use the basement free of charge. Although the historical museum is not in imminent danger, city officials say they cannot allow the room to be used as a storage facility forever.

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“There may be a time down the road when we are going to get our heads together and figure out the best solution for the exhibit,” Davis said. “Right now, there is no real need to do much about it.”

Rosemary Harris, president and founding member of the Oxnard Historical Society, acknowledged that her group is “dormant” but declined to elaborate.

The basement is used on a daily basis for a children’s art class, said Suzy Bellah, curator for the Carnegie Art Museum, which occupies the two floors upstairs. Sometimes elementary schoolteachers bring students to tour the historical museum, she said.

The historical museum is not closed, there simply is no one to operate it, she said.

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“Basically, it’s just been sitting there,” said David Caufield, community facility supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department. “If people want to look at it, it’s here.”

Boxes of paints, pens and canvas from the art classes are stacked on glass cases that hold old trinkets and faded newspaper clippings. Chairs and easels are scattered across the dimly lit museum.

In one case is a January, 1949, edition of the Oxnard Press-Courier with a banner headline that reads: “Bus Fare Jumps to Dime Monday.”

In another case is a 1915 Ku Klux Klan uniform, complete with hood, which, according to a tag, was “used in the water rights fights in Owens Valley, CA.”

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In the middle of the floor sits a green safe that once belonged to the first Bank of A. Levy, museum officials said. A few feet away is a huge clock embedded in a four-foot stone sculpture that includes nude male and female figures. The sculpture was taken from the First National Bank on 5th and A streets.

Edward Robings, who in May became executive director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, said he has not seen Oxnard’s museum, but that it is very difficult to run a museum on volunteers.

“You have to have some paid staff to have any continuity,” he said.

However, the Conejo Valley Historical Society has been operating a three-story museum in Thousand Oaks that houses hundreds of artifacts without city support since 1964.

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In fact, the 300-member group has generated enough money from donations and fund-raisers to recently hire a part-time museum director, said Miriam Sprankling, a past president of the group.

“It’s too bad that Oxnard is that way, because I think that every town should have its history preserved,” she said.

Oxnard Councilwoman Dorothy Maron said she was unaware of the historical museum’s situation and promised to look into the matter.

“Some of the artifacts are very interesting and represent the beginning of the city,” she said. “It really shouldn’t be destroyed. If it is gathering dust, that is a destroyer.”

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There has been a suggestion recently floating around City Hall to move some of the old photos and mementos from the museum to Heritage Square, a block near downtown Oxnard where 11 historic houses and a church are being renovated as part of a city redevelopment project.

The proposal to move some of the artifacts has been considered, but Davis said city officials have yet to formally propose the idea to the City Council.

City officials said Heritage Square should be completed by February, 1991.


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