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Shriver Drops State Women’s Museum Plan

Times Staff Writer

California First Lady Maria Shriver is backing off her plan to convert the state’s history museum into an exhibition dedicated solely to women, a concession to those who feared California’s past would be overshadowed in the new design.

At Shriver’s urging, the board that runs the California State History Museum voted Tuesday to approve a new concept in which women’s history would be folded into a larger facility dedicated to state history as a whole.

The action comes after three board members stepped down to protest what they saw as an exclusive focus on the role of women in California history.

“We were all very concerned. What happens to all the archival materials and the broader picture, as opposed to just focusing on women?” said Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), incoming head of the state legislative women’s caucus. "... I think a compromise has been reached regarding the proposal, and it’s a laudable compromise.”

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Shriver has no legal authority over the museum, located a block from the Capitol grounds, but she has effectively taken control of its future at the board’s invitation. Since her husband was inaugurated one year ago, she has proposed three name changes for the museum, all of which were accepted by the museum’s management. Under her latest approach, a venue once known as the Golden State Museum would be called the California State History Center.

Board members say the museum is perilously close to shutting its doors because of financial difficulties. In tying the museum’s future to Shriver, its management hopes the first lady will bring fundraising muscle, publicity and fresh ideas to a facility struggling to find an audience and identity.

“She did an outstanding job of expressing the evolution of her thinking, and that corresponded with the evolution of the board’s thinking,” said Steven A. Merksamer, a museum board member and partner in a Sacramento law firm that lobbies in the capital and that has been active in various ballot campaigns. “Maria Shriver was a life raft.... We were going under.”

Shriver’s plans are still sketchy. She did not return calls seeking comment. A statement put out by the museum said the revamped facility “will tell the story of California’s amazing state history.” Shriver said in the news release that the museum would feature “men and remarkable women, and will inspire generations of boys and girls for decades to come.”

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The Legislature would need to approve a change in the museum’s mandate. Built with more than $10 million in bond money, the museum has been open since 1998 and is intended mainly to showcase California’s archival records, including the state Constitution and the papers of former governors and legislators.

The museum’s operations have been largely private. Officials have released no records documenting the facility’s financial condition and have kept board meetings closed to the public. In the face of renewed interest in the museum’s operations, board members now are considering opening their meetings.

Shriver’s influence on the museum’s operations has been expanding steadily. In May, she ushered in a new exhibit dedicated to California’s “remarkable women.”

Then she quietly pressed the 16-member museum board to concentrate entirely on women’s history. The board consented, directing staff members in September to work with her and others to develop the new California Women’s History Museum.

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A museum consultant placed an ad for a new director and announced that the space would be revamped by Edwin Schlossberg, a museum design expert and husband of Shriver’s cousin Caroline Kennedy.

Three board members resigned over the new path. A number of lawmakers and others were equally troubled.

“Many thought there would be no other place to preserve California history if this were to become an entirely women’s museum,” said Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park).

“And in addition, there is a women’s museum being built in San Francisco,” Chu added. “She [Shriver] would have had to face some very tough questions about why there would be a competing museum and what would happen to the history of California. How would it be preserved if this were to go through?”

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Amid the backlash, the board voted in October to reaffirm its commitment to the women’s museum. But over the last month, Shriver and the board have reconsidered.

“More people are served by expanding her original vision into a larger one that incorporates all of California history. We always intended to include the archives, but to profile them in a prominent way,” said Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for Shriver.

Bids will be sought for the design work, though Merksamer said that job still could go to Schlossberg.

“We’ll invite interested parties, absolutely,” Merksamer said. He added that Schlossberg “may very well be” chosen.

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Shriver will join a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to underwrite the new museum. Currently, it is housed in 25,000 square feet of exhibition space.

“It will be alive and vibrant and it will be a home to lecturers who can gather to talk about issues of the day and of the past,” Carbaugh said. “It’s too soon to know how the final design will look.”

Shriver attracted numerous private sponsors for her “remarkable women” exhibit, including major corporations that lobby in Sacramento: Hewlett-Packard, Pacific Gas and Electric, petroleum giant BP and telephone company SBC Communications.

Shriver also is accepting corporate sponsors for a conference on women and families in Long Beach, set for Dec. 7.

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The “honorary premier sponsor” for the event will be BP, which lobbied the governor’s office and the broader administration in recent months on emissions reductions, fees and California regulations, according to disclosure forms filed with the state.

Sponsors can expect a package of “conference benefits” that will include invitations to a reception with Shriver and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, according to conference literature.

The more a company gives, the more invitations it gets. Those giving the maximum of $250,000 get 10 invitations to the party, which includes a photo opportunity. Firms giving the minimum of $25,000 get two invites.


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