The Ventura County Maritime Museum at Channel Islands Harbor was first opened on February 13, 1991 at 2731 Victoria Blvd. in Oxnard to a large crowd of excited guests. The prospect of a maritime museum was inspired by the goal to educate people about maritime history and culture. Early correspondences and current trends show that the museum’s success is due largely to the funds and artifacts provided by the Nelson Maritime Arts Foundation and the hard work of their dedicated volunteers.

Harry Nelson Jr. was a local businessman who owned much of the Anacapa Harbor. His interest in maritime history led to a collection of beautiful artwork and ship models that recount the world’s rich maritime heritage. Nelson wanted a place to showcase his collection, and the museum served that purpose wonderfully.

The museum also owes much of its success to the work of its dedicated volunteers. Within a month of opening, the museum enjoyed over 1,000 hours of docent and volunteer time. Frank Crane, the first executive director of the museum, mentioned in an early email to the Board of Trustees that the museum could not have opened on time without their help. Volunteers ran (and continue to run) day-to-day operations by acting as docents and greeting guests during opening hours between Wednesday and Sunday. When expected donations did not arrive, the volunteers were also there to install lighting, display cases and wall partitions. Their time reduced the costs of the artifacts display budget by over $100,000. In all, savings from volunteer help allowed the museum to spend only 41% of its original construction budget, leaving the rest for operations. 

One of the origin stories of the maritime museum itself comes from long-time docent, Pat Wynhoff, who was in the first docent training class of 1990. She recounts a story about John Wayne, Martin Smith, and Thomas Volk drinking and fishing together on Wayne’s rehabbed navy vessel, The Wild Goose. Smith was telling Wayne about the progress on the harbor, and as Wayne had been around the area while the development was taking place, he suggested that Ventura County build a Maritime Museum to sit on the harbor.

The genesis of the museum has given the harbor an extremely influential organization. In June 2012, the museum moved from its original location at Fisherman’s Wharf to the site of the old Port Royal restaurant, where it still attracts crowds of visitors each year and works with a team of around 100 volunteers to provide a unique and educational experience for all guests. The museum collection comes in large part from Harry and Joyce Nelson, avid maritime history enthusiasts who also owned Almar Ltd. Marinas and the Anacapa Isle Marina who collected many paintings and ship models from 1650 to the present. The Maritime Museum boasts an unsurpassed art and model collection, contemporary exhibits, monthly speaker series, exhibit openings, high-quality education program and research library that allows guests to expand their knowledge of maritime history, culture, and conservation.