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Cultural Evolution : It’s a new era at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. You won’t find the two-headed lamb anymore.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This frequently asked question at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art has nothing to do with either history or art: Whatever happened to the two-headed lamb?

“We get people in all the time who remember that thing from when they were children and ask where it is,” said Yetive Hendricks, an 82-year-old Ventura resident and longtime museum docent.

For four decades at the museum, the anatomically incorrect critter was a favorite attraction “that everybody liked to touch,” recalled Delee Marshall, a docent since 1936.

These days, however, the stuffed lamb collects dust, not pats on the heads. The creature can be found grazing atop a storage cabinet in the museum’s off-limits basement, sharing cramped quarters with collections of marbles, Kewpie dolls and other sideshow oddities.

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A symbol of the museum’s quirky parochialism--and casual disregard for high professional standards--the lamb was put out to pasture in 1977. That was when the museum moved into its present headquarters across from San Buenaventura Mission and “finally entered the 20th Century,” said Richard Esparza, former executive director.

Although still not considered in the same league as Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History and Museum of Art, Ventura’s 80-year-old institution continues to evolve into a higher cultural entity in the post-two-headed lamb era. Not only is it closing in on accreditation by the prestigious American Assn. of Museums--only 739 museums in the country have met the strict requirements--but the county facility is already drawing a bead on the 21st Century.

In January, the museum was awarded a hard-to-get $50,979 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to plan the redesign of its history exhibits. Executive Director Ed Robings calls the award “one of the most exciting things to happen around here.”

Robings and newly hired Curator Tim Schiffer expect to take the museum into the world of interactive high-tech and give the exhibits a more contemporary interpretive spin.

And while publicly financed museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are experiencing rough financial times, the county museum--which became a private, nonprofit corporation in 1978--is on stable footing and is even considering expansion.

“We haven’t had to cut back our hours and do the drastic things other museums have done,” Robings said.

Pluckiness has always characterized the museum. It has helped it survive as a cultural oasis for more than eight decades in a city once called a cow town--by a deputy mayor, no less--and in a county with no tradition of support for the arts (the county government will spend about $43,000 on the arts this fiscal year compared with Santa Barbara County’s $840,000).

Started as a county-run department in 1914, the museum owes its origin to pioneer families and its longevity to their descendants who, along with a devoted corps of volunteer docents, continue to give the museum all the tender, loving care of a family heirloom. The present 25-member board of directors echoes with mainline names from the county’s early days: Corvarrubias, Orcutt, Smith, Marriott, Dailey, Dudley, Leavens, Banner, Miedema, Butler.

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“My family has always been interested in supporting the museum--we come from pioneer stock and want to preserve the past,” said Katherine (Kay) Hobson Haley, the museum’s financial adviser, and the great-granddaughter of William Dewey Hobson, known as the “father of Ventura County” and daughter of Edith Hobson Hoffman, a major benefactor of the museum.

The museum is an offshoot of the Society of Ventura County Pioneers, which was created on the steps of the county courthouse 103 years ago. According to Robings, Cephas L. Bard, regarded as the “first white doctor in the county,” was elected president. Bard collected Chumash artifacts, many of which, in lieu of cash, were given for medical services. He left his collection to the society when he died in 1901.

With no quarters of its own to display the 229 artifacts, the society donated them to the county in 1913. At a meeting in December, 1914, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution to finance the Ventura County Pioneer Museum. The collection was exhibited in the Chamber of Commerce room at the county courthouse (which later became Ventura City Hall).

Although the county contributed $150,000 to $200,000 a year in operating costs and officially ran the museum, the society continued to be involved.

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Society member E. M. Sheridan was curator for 23 years, and he never met a curio he didn’t like. He displayed family photos, peculiar shaped rocks, pink Kewpie dolls, square nails, shoe boxes filled with arrowheads. And then there was the ever-popular two-headed lamb, which was born on a Hidden Valley farm in the early ‘30s, stuffed and given to the museum shortly thereafter, Delee Marshall says.

“We were a real small-town museum,” said Marshall, a 76-year-old Ventura resident. “People would bring us anything that was a curiosity. Sheridan would put it in a case and make a label. We had no real theme.”

In 1949, the county finally moved the museum into a squat, 3,000-square-foot building at 77 California St. Eight years later, the Ventura County Historical Society--successor to the Pioneer Society--signed a contract with the county to operate the museum.

In 1961, Edith Hobson Hoffman led a fund-raising campaign to build a larger and more architecturally appealing building. When she died in 1970 at the age of 80, county Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg tapped her daughter to take charge of the money-raising effort.

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“We were at a meeting and he put his hand on my shoulder and said to the assembled group: ‘Let’s put Kay in charge--I know she’ll get it done,’ ” said Haley, a feisty 74-year-old who lives on a 350-acre ranch overlooking Lake Casitas.

Haley was the logical choice. In the ‘60s, Edith Hoffman had purchased a parcel of land for the purpose of building the new museum, but the property was not only too small, it was found to contain Chumash artifacts, putting it off-limits to development.

Shortly after their mother died, Haley and her brother, land magnate Walter Hoffman, donated to the museum an appropriate half-acre of land across the street from the mission. The museum, in turn, sold it to the city for about $55,000; in exchange, the city gave the museum a 99-year lease, at $1 a year.

Haley and Hoffman, with the help of then-Ventura City Councilwoman Barbara Udsen, raised more than $650,000 to build a handsome hacienda-like building with terra-cotta floors, cedar beams and 15,700 square feet of space. Haley even contributed succulents from her ranch to landscape the site.

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“The museum would not be there today without Kay Haley and Walter Hoffman,” Esparza said. “I always told people I worked for Kay Haley even though she had no official designation.”

Aside from Edith Hoffman, the museum’s biggest benefactor was Fritz Huntsinger, a Ventura philanthropist who put up $350,000. Galleries bearing their names greeted visitors at the museum’s grand opening in June, 1977.

Everything went smoothly for the little museum--until the county pulled the plug.

In 1978, the passage of Proposition 13 forced the county to make radical budget cuts. To save about $200,000 a year, the Board of Supervisors ended the county’s 64-year relationship with the museum. Losing all its funding, the museum had no income or operating capital. Haley remembers her reaction to the county’s decision.

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“I was speechless,” she said. “We all were.”

The board of directors at first considered closing the museum, Esparza says, but then decided to go on without county help. Lending itself $50,000 from funds left over from building construction, paring staff and launching a corporate membership drive--200 were sold at $100 each--the museum was able to stay afloat.

Independence from the county is now viewed as a stroke of good fortune. In three years, the museum was able to pay back the $50,000 loan and become entirely self-supporting, Esparza says. Even with an annual operating budget of about $350,000 today, the museum manages to break even by relying on 1,800 members, donations and admissions from 27,000 annual visitors.

The museum also has a $700,000 endowment, which is minuscule compared with some museums (even the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s $21-million endowment is considered paltry by national standards). Aside from receiving $35,000 a year from the city of Ventura, the museum also charges the county $20,000 for taking care of the Bard collection and storing county archives in the museum library.

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Being dropped by the county “forced the museum to become much more of a community institution,” said Esparza, now executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art.

During the 1978 crises, the museum sent out an SOS to the community. “We figured out how much it cost to run the museum for a day, an hour and a minute,” Esparza said, “and people would give us money to keep us open. School kids brought in bags of quarters. Somebody even sent in a check for $10,000.”

Even the board of directors--once almost the exclusive domain of pioneer descendants--became more diversified. “Used to be that bloodlines were everything on the board,” said Hendricks, the docent. “Now they want people from all spheres of (society).”

While some museum boards have a reputation for meddling in operational and curatorial affairs instead of concentrating on setting policy and raising money, the local board of directors “has been fairly hands off,” said Kathy Hartman, assistant curator.

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The museum that was spearheaded by pioneers will no longer see county history through their eyes. In the redesigned museum, the pioneers’ romanticized version of the West will be replaced by a new interpretation based on ethnic and environmental conflicts, says Margo McBane, who wrote the grant that won the NEH award. This shift away from the pioneers’ perspective, however, does not bother even those board members with strong ties to the past.

“The museum may have been by and for old families, but it’s for everyone in Ventura County now,” said William L. Orcutt, incoming board president and descendant of a pioneer Santa Paula family. “I’ve been fighting to get the (historical exhibits) changed. It’s absolutely mandatory. Our interpretation is very archaic.”

Curator Schiffer expects the redesign to take the museum to a higher level. “The NEH grant is a quantum leap for the museum,” he said.

After completing redesign plans in the next few months, the museum will apply for another NEH grant to implement the changes. “If we do everything right, we should get the grant,” Schiffer said. “Getting the first one was the hard part.”

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While upgrading its history displays, the museum may also buff up its art image. Although a permanent collection of George Stuart Historical Figures is highly respected, and the annual Assembly of the Arts (a competition for local artists currently running through Sunday) is well-received by critics, the museum is not known for putting on daring art shows.

All that could change with the arrival of Schiffer, who ran the College of Creative Studies Gallery at UC Santa Barbara and has a reputation for injecting excitement into his shows. Hired in October, Schiffer, 39, doesn’t know whether he will be able to stretch the aesthetic in Ventura: “That remains to be seen,” he said.

Aside from the annual hunt for cash and endowments, museum officials are considering a much-needed expansion. The museum’s 170 docents have to meet at a church because the museum lacks a multipurpose auditorium. Art collections have been turned down because the museum has no extra storage space. The Huntsinger Gallery, home to the historical displays, only has room to exhibit a fraction of the 23,571 objects in the museum’s collection. And the highly respected upstairs research library, with 25,000 photos, 5,000 books and 500 maps, “is jammed to the ceiling,” said Librarian Charles Johnson, associate director of the museum.

Sally Yount, a board member and chairman of the planning committee, expects the museum to begin a major fund-raising effort this year, after expansion plans are “totally in place and we have all our ducks in a row.” She believes that the museum is well-positioned to make dramatic improvements.

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Others share her optimism. “This museum is going places,” Marshall said.

Without the two-headed lamb, no doubt.


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