Twenty Years Behind the Mast

By Greg Gorga   |   July 23, 2020
Students in SBMM’s Marine Science Program – with Stardust / Coral Sea Crew

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum celebrates a milestone and sails into the future

Back in 1994, a small group of divers, fishermen, and sailors began meeting at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club and the Breakwater Restaurant to start planning a museum that would “present and interpret the rich and diverse maritime history of the Santa Barbara Channel.” Then, on October 3, 1994, the five founding directors – Clyde E. Kirkpatrick, Robert B. Kieding, Frederick Rice, Leon A. Fleischer, and John S. Poucher – signed the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (SBMM) incorporation charter in the State of California.

These original directors, along with others chosen to head up various committees – John Cahill, Thomas Fuller, Miriam Polne-Fuller, and Leslie Leaney – put together a plan and set about finding the artifacts and support for what Marinalife Magazine would come to name one of the top 10 maritime museums in the United States. Rumor has it that those earliest plans were even written on the back of Santa Barbara Yacht Club cocktail napkins!

Dwight Brooks and friend with the Atlantic

In those earliest years, before the museum had even opened, the focus was on the need to raise money, create exhibits, build programs based on the mission statement and raise more money! With the help of some key donors – most notably Charles and Nancy Munger, Ed & Helen Wilson, Tamara DiCaprio, and Barry and Jean Schuyler – SBMM began to grow and build, finally opening its doors in the Harbor’s historic Waterfront Center (formerly the Naval Reserve Building) on July 29, 2000. The event was attended by 2,500 people and a visiting tall ship! Even then, the classic wooden yacht Ranger had been refurbished and tied up at the dock in front of the museum, and the incomparable Dwight Brooks working ship models graced the interior.

Over the next 10 years, the museum continued to grow, adding some of its best-known exhibits and celebrating exciting events like the first Chumash tomol (plank-built boats used by the area’s Chumash and Tongva tribes) crossing in 150 years.

In that historic first year, the Honda Disaster exhibit opened and The Ocean Institute’s tall ship Spirit of Dana Point paid its first of 19 annual visits to SBMM, enabling children to experience the life of a 19th century sailor after reading R.H. Dana’s 1840 classic, Two Years Before the Mast. In the following years a favorite sportfishing exhibit and a Titanic exhibit were mounted, SBMM’s unforgettable Kardboard Kayak races began and the 4th floor Outdoor Visitor’s Center was opened – providing visitors with the best view in Santa Barbara!

Over the past ten years, the museum has continued to grow and expand its reach while staying true to its mission. In 2011, building on the museum’s collection of historic diving equipment and Santa Barbara’s role in the development of commercial diving, SBMM received the world’s first lockout diving bell, Purisima, which is now installed on the museum’s patio.

Another priority during the past decade has been an effort to stabilize the museum’s administration and finances. To that end, in 2013, SBMM and its supporters were able to partially “buy-out” its building lease, saving thousands of dollars each month while raising more than $400,000 to dismantle, move, refurbish, and rebuild the impressive 157-year-old First Order Fresnel Point Conception Lighthouse lens.

Students in SBMM’s Marine Science Program – with Stardust / Coral Sea Crew

From its inception, SBMM has been a resource and active partner with schools throughout the county serving students and teachers with activities at the Museum, in the Harbor, on the Channel and in the classroom. Many of the students attend Title I schools and are welcomed at a reduced rate or at no charge. In fact, “No Child Left Ashore” has become SBMM’s mantra.

Accordingly, the museum opened an interactive Children’s Gallery and developed a variety of exciting educational programs – ranging from volunteers visiting school Science Nights to teach children about navigation, sailing, and lighthouses and leading tailored school tours, to developing the unique Marine Science program, which takes children out on boats – often for the first time – to catch and study fish and other marine life.

Educating adults has also been considered an important element of the museum’s mission and has led to SBMM’s monthly lecture series, Navigator’s Circle presentations and events, including the History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel exhibit and the Alternative Uses of Oil Platforms Expo, all to enable informed discussions on issues of concern in and around the Santa Barbara Channel.

Chumash Tomol Crossing

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has continued to find ways to serve the community and its mission. The museum has hosted the SCAPE Art Show & Sale, Sea Glass Festival pop-ups, children’s cooking contests and was being named Nonprofit of the Year by the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce. It has also refurbished its collections facility and renamed it in founder Robert Kieding’s honor, while applying for national accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums.

Among the most exciting efforts is the new SBMM Maritime on the Move (MotM), which began in February 2020, bringing maritime education to more children in their own schools and neighborhoods. According to Education Committee member and co-developer Holly Lohuis, “With the growing body of evidence showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for a child’s healthy physical and emotional development, the educational team at SBMM has expanded our programs to include opportunities for local students to investigate and learn about the natural environment close to their homes and schools.”

Point Conception Lighthouse First Order Fresnel Lens lit blue for essential workers

Thanks to its supporters, SBMM has been able to keep staff “onboard,” many working at home, while mounting new exhibits, developing new programs, and improving online communications with the community during the COVID-19 crisis. And like so many others, the staff has learned to use more technology for presentations, fundraising, and transforming the museum’s programs and educational offerings.

Beginning with a redesign of its website, SBMM has added new pages, most notably “SBMM at Home” (, which features games, projects, articles, videos, virtual guided “tours” of the museum for all ages, allowing users to access museum resources from their own homes. In addition, the Museum has moved its monthly lecture series, film showings and events to online formats, such as Zoom Webinars and Facebook Live, and made all previous and recent lectures available as easily accessible videos ( Thanks to grants from the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts & Culture, staff is being trained to create the videos for virtual tours, online exhibits, and more educational material.

As is the case with other museums, without the normal revenue streams from admissions, rentals, and its gift shop, SBMM has turned to online fundraisers and auctions, emails, and social media to spread its messages. Work has also begun on an online gift shop.

Another new effort is SBMM’s first online collection featuring the Brooks Models – 32 large-scale, fully operational model ships and boats. Members of the community and researchers will be able to see photographs, model specs and stories about these models. Also upcoming are the SCAPE Virtual Art Show & Sale (July 25-August 7) featuring 150+ paintings from local artists (, an online birthday celebration including a virtual cake recipe contest that kicks off July 29, a kids’ cooking contest, and much more… and this is just the beginning as SBMM sails into its next 20 years!

Members of the public are invited to join us on our voyage by becoming a member, sharing memories and birthday wishes, or making a donation.


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