PICTURED: “Mending Nets by the Shore,” 1862, Hermanus Koekkoek. Photo courtesy of Adri Howe/Channel Islands Maritime Museum
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
“The sea is a big part of our life,” says Adri Howe, executive director of the Channel Islands Maritime Museum (CIMM), as she muses on a painting by 19th century Dutch artist Hermanus Koekkoek, “Mending Nets by the Shore.” “People making a living . . . very mundane activities. But I like that a lot of the artwork here focuses on people.”
Not just people, of course. CIMM’s vast collection runs the gamut, from dramatic battles on roiling waters to detailed renderings of ship life to serene seascapes, dating from 1622 to the present day. There are also impressive ship models (many made by the famous molder builder Edward Marple — whose entire collection resides here), a stunning rendering of Ming dynasty mariner Zheng He, exhibits on whales and sailors, hands-on activities for kids, a research library and more. All this in a lovely two-story building in Channel Islands Harbor with some of the best views in the area.
It’s no wonder that CIMM has been so beloved by the community, which pre-pandemic showed up in droves to participate in its many special events throughout the year. In 2021, this expansive and well-organized museum celebrates its 30th anniversary.
The Nelson legacy
The story of CIMM begins with Harry Nelson, a local businessman and owner of Anacapa Isle Marina, who with his wife, Joyce, shared a taste for maritime history and culture. Through the decades, they amassed an impressive collection of ship models, marine artifacts and maritime art.
“It was a collection that developed over several years,” explains Howe. “They had such a good eye for art.”
To house this collection, share it with the community and create a cultural center, the Nelsons joined forces with Fisherman’s Wharf developer Martin V. “Bud” Smith. Together they opened the Ventura County Maritime Museum in 1991 in Fisherman’s Wharf. It moved to its present location in 2012, and was renamed the Channel Islands Maritime Museum.
Some of the most important names in maritime art can be found here. There are works by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters like Ludolf Backhuysen (also spelled Bakhuizen), Willem van de Velde the Younger and Adam Willaerts. Willaerts’ “Dutch Men-of-War Off a Rocky Coast with Fisherman on the Beach with Their Catch,” painted in 1622, is the oldest painting in the museum. British Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries include Edward William Cooke and John Christian Schetky. The museum also displays paintings by French and American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Eugène-Louis Boudin (a tremendous influence on Claude Monet), Christopher Blossom and David Thimgan.
While the museum hosts traveling exhibits several times a year, and has acquired a variety of new pieces since Harry Nelson’s passing in 2002, the original collection remains the heart — and pride — of the museum. The Nelson family, through the children and grandchildren of Harry and Joyce, remain involved as well.
“We raise or own funds, through private donations, foundations and grants,” Howe says. “But we always have the support of the Nelson family behind us. It’s nice that the people who had an interest in this collection still have an interest in this collection. They love this museum.”
A year of celebration
As, according to Howe, do local residents. During the shutdown, she fielded numerous calls from community members, checking in and wondering when the museum might reopen.
“The community loves this museum — that’s the feeling we get here,” she says.
Despite remaining closed, CIMM intends to honor its fans and history with a year of programming, something new every month, in celebration of its 30th anniversary.
It kicks off 2021 with the January Grub and Grog recipe contest. First- and second-place winners in four categories — Best Ship’s Soup or Stew, Kids Crew Culinary Creation (for those 16 years and younger), Best “Hidden Treasure” Cookie or Bar and Best Captain’s Cocktail (must contain rum; for ages 21 and up) — will win prizes, such as CIMM memberships, signed prints and rum from contest sponsor Black Bart Navy Rum. Recipes and a photo of the concoction must be submitted by Jan. 21.
In February, it’s “I Love My Maritime Museum,” when members of the public can share thoughts about what they love about CIMM, and place virtual stickers on an online bulletin board to show their favorite item or exhibit. Participants will be entered into a drawing for a chance to win a membership and other prizes.
Also coming up: a focus on whales (March) and the ocean environment (April). All events will be virtual until it is safe for the museum to open to visitors once again.
“Expanding the horizons”
When CIMM does allow people to come onsite, visitors will find some new things to enjoy: a recently created navigation exhibit, a section of the museum converted to resemble the inside of a ship, upcoming features on sailor’s folk art and cetacean photography, a modernized Port of Hueneme display and more. Howe says that the museum used the downtime brought on by COVID-19 to make new plans, reorganize, digitize the collection and reimagine exhibits with a fresh perspective.
“It’s just expanding the horizons,” she says. “Adding extra touches to the exhibits that we have.”
“It’s been a unique time,” Howe continues. “[The shutdown] couldn’t have come at a better time for us, as we’re thinking and re-evaluating. These last few months let us get a new direction. We are eagerly and excitedly looking toward the future.”
Channel Islands Maritime Museum, 3900 Bluefin Circle, Oxnard, 805-984-6260. Submissions for the Grub and Grog recipe contest will be accepted through Jan. 21. For contest rules, guidelines and more information, email email@example.com or visit cimmvc.org/30th-anniversary-events-and-activities-for-january/.