The history of the Channel islands maritime museum

The Museum was the culmination of a shared vision by Harry Nelson, a collector of marine art and a Channel Islands Harbor businessman, and by Bud Smith, the major developer of Fisherman’s Wharf, both of whom desired to see a cultural asset at the Harbor.

Two years before the museum opened in 1991, Harry Nelson formed a Board of Trustees and became its Chairman. Harry was an attorney by profession, but became interested in marinas and eventually established Almar Marinas, with two locations in Ventura County along with others in California and in Mexico, and Hawaii. His love and appreciation of maritime art began when he and his wife, Joyce, on a trip to Europe in the sixties, purchased two small paintings. In the following years, the collection grew into one of the finest privately-owned maritime-themed collections in the world. The art is strong in its representation of 17th Century Dutch and British artists (Willem van de Velde, Ludolf Backhuysen, John Wilson Carmichael, Bonaventura Peeters), as well as prominent American painters (John Stobart, Thomas Hoyne, David Thimgan, and others). Much of the Nelson collection of marine art and models of historic ships is exhibited here in the Channel Islands Maritime Museum. Before passing away in 2002, Harry established the Nelson Maritime Arts Foundation to assure continued support of the Museum.

Ventura County can thank Bud Smith for much of its commercial development. Bud not only had a hand in the Fisherman’s Wharf complex, but for most of what’s at the Harbor. He also developed extensive holdings along the south side of the 101 freeway, known as the Wagon Wheel property, as well as the Financial Plaza, said to be the tallest building between Los Angeles and San Jose. Prior to his passing, Bud formed the Smith Foundation, which continues to provide financial assistance to the Museum.

The Museum began as the Ventura County Maritime Museum in 1990 at Fisherman’s Wharf at Channel Islands Blvd and Victoria Avenue in Oxnard. It remained at this site until 2012 when it moved to a new location across the Channel and was renamed the Channel Islands Maritime Museum.  

The Museum has an extensive and world-class maritime art collection, featuring 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters such as Willem van de Velde and Bonaventura Peeters, 18th century British artists Edward Cooke and Robert Salmon to noted modern day artists John Stobart, David Thimgan, and Thomas Hoyne. Ship models trace more than 3000 years of maritime history, from ancient Egyptian reed boats and tomols used by local Chumash to modern day car carriers. The Museum houses the largest collection of antique Prisoner of War sailing ship models on display in the United States. These models, including eight rare bone models, were made by French prisoners of the British during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition, the Museum exhibits the entire life’s work of Ed Marple, one of America’s foremost ship model builders. Other exhibits on whaling, sailor’s arts, navigational instrument and the history of the Channel Island Harbor and The Port of Hueneme round out the permanent collection. Special topical and featured guest artist exhibitions are presented on an ongoing basis.