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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.

March 03, 1994|JEFF MEYERS | 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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