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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Heed Warnings on Museum

January 05, 2003

As many a struggling museum director can attest, a good collection is just a start when it comes to creating a successful cultural attraction.

So even though a handful of organizers have amassed $2 million worth of vintage tanks, uniforms and other military paraphernalia, they're engaged in a losing battle when it comes to building a military museum in one of the old Tustin blimp hangars.

It would cost $262 million to create the museum and $6 million a year to keep it running, according to a recent report.

Given Orange County's gaping needs, there is no way to rationalize spending public money on a military museum.

And even if the museum were to be built, the county report questions whether the museum would draw sufficient visitors because its natural constituency -- older white males -- is a diminishing demographic.

The disappointed advocates of the museum should heed the report's warning. Consider the Southwest Museum, with its rich collection of Native American artifacts. Continual funding gaps and problems housing its own collection properly, along with other woes, forced L.A.'s oldest museum to merge with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. The Laguna Art Museum, with its superior art collection, almost merged six years ago with the Newport Harbor Art Museum to avoid insolvency.

The county is overstating the costs, according to museum backers who say they can pull it off for a fraction of that amount. If that's true, they should start a nonprofit organization and start fund-raising. If they raise enough to renovate a hangar, good for them. The county has done its part by making temporary space available while the museum supporters try to drum up funds.

Even if the county had the money for a museum, supervisors should base their funding decisions on the proposal's merits, not on which group happens to come forward with a plan. Two decades of Orange County development have uncovered rich troves of marine fossils from when most of the county was under water. So why not consider a museum showcasing treasures now shrouded from public view in a warehouse?

The military has played a notable role in the county's history, but California already is home to more than 60 military, aviation and maritime museums. An open-air museum in the San Gabriel Valley is loaded with tanks, jeeps, trucks and artillery -- and draws no government funds.

Veterans deserve the public's honor. But if money is available, let's use it to make veterans' lives more comfortable through improved health care and services for the elderly.

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