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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

On The Job: The Seafarer

Raymond Ashley, Muir ’77
By Neda Oreizy, ’08

Raymond Ashley decided that if he couldn’t be a sailor, he would collect ships—for the San Diego Maritime Museum.

 
     

Raymond Ashley is obviously very much at home. As chief executive officer and president of the San Diego Maritime Museum, his office onboard the 1898 steam ferry Berkeley faces the embarcadero and he has a view of the rest of the museum’s historic ship collection. His love of ships is evident as he begins to describe the current and upcoming exhibits. He gingerly removes the top of a tub and takes out his collection of miniature ships: the Berkeley; the 1904 steam yacht Medea; the 1914 harbor Pilot boat; the HMS Surprise a replica of a 24-gun, 18th century Royal Navy frigate, and Californian a replica of a mid-19th century revenue cutter. Finally there is the museum ’s most prized possession, the Star of India, built on the Isle of Man in 1863 when iron ships were still relatively rare. Ashley arranges the models on the floor and, with obvious passion for his career, animatedly explains how the museum has developed since he took the job as chief executive officer and president in 1995.

When Ashley graduated with his social anthropology major at UCSD, he wanted to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a sailor. For the next few years he worked for Jack Dorsee, whose company chartered out over 20 boats. Apart from teaching sailing, Ashley also picked up boats from San Francisco to Mexico and delivered them to San Diego —and once even sailed a boat back from Panama. Finally, however, he tired of the sea-gypsy life. “Over time, that began to be increasingly incompatible with being married and having kids,” says Ashley.

He became more interested in American history and, while attending a conference of maritime historians, was tempted to apply for a master’s in maritime history and underwater archaeology at East Carolina University. After completing his M.A., he went on to do his Ph.D. in the history of science at Duke, and was working on his doctoral dissertation in maritime history and underwater archaeology when he accepted the position at the museum and moved his family from Duke University in North Carolina back to San Diego.
Ever since he arrived in San Diego, he has been consistently striving to keep the museum afloat. “A lot of maritime museums are facing serious financial challenges. At the time, we were kind of at the cutting edge of that,” Ashley says, laughing. “You see, we were already facing serious financial challenges.”

Ashley implemented a number of new ideas. He acquired a larger fleet of ships and refocused the museum ’s approach. He decided to direct the onboard experience so that patrons would learn about maritime history by enveloping themselves in the various historical periods. “Ships are a great environment, because you are almost perfectly immersed—when you step onto a ship from a certain period, you’re surrounded by that period,” Ashley says. “You think you’re back in that time.”

Ashley also initiated an educational program called Living History, in partnership with the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. The largest program has 150 fourth and fifth grade classes a year participating in an imaginary journey that takes place in 1874. The students take on their 19th-century roles, research their parts and participate in ship-related challenges such as setting the sail.

“ It ’s very educational,” Ashley says. “They’re told their job is to learn about that ship, and that they’re going to sail it on a mission. Even though we have them for only a short period of time, it’s really transformative. So much of our modern experience is programmatic and technologically based that we’ve kind of drifted away from traditional ways of educating people.”

The museum ’s permanent exhibits range from the Age of Sail to the Age of Steam to the Harvesting of the Ocean (chronicling the commercial fishing industry that once made San Diego the tuna capital of the world). But Ashley is also widening the museum’s scope to include marine research, and plans to build a replica of the San Salvador, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expeditionary ship that explored the Californian coast for Spain. He wants the San Salvador to participate in oceanic genomic surveys to study phytoplankton. (Phytoplankton produces oxygen and hydrogen while burning carbon dioxide, thus helping offset the effect of global warming). Meanwhile he is developing a partnership with NOVA for educational material related to the study.

In the last few years, the museum has also displayed a Russian Soviet-era, diesel-electric submarine, the B-39. And the museum is in the process of acquiring the USS Dolphin, a recently decommissioned U.S. diesel-electric submarine. “We’re going to be presenting two Cold War adversaries,” says Ashley. “It’s an interesting way of interpreting history.”
Even with all of his desk work, Ashley still makes time to sail. This year, he took museum members to the Mediter ­ranean, where they explored ancient ships from Cyprus, Turkey and Venice—some of which were still intact. Such programs generate a lot of growth for the museum, as there are few programs of that kind available.

Ashley believes that partnerships are essential for the museum ’s success and participates in various boards, but his favorite partnerships are with his volunteers. From the model builders and museum docents to his volunteer crews who spend their weekends preparing for voyages and repairing the ships. “I get to come to work with a bunch of people who are a blast, in an environment that is very stimulating—I don’t think it gets much better than that.”

Neda Oreizy, ’08, is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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"Ships are a great environment, because you are almost perfectly immersed—when you step onto a ship from a certain period, you’re surrounded by that period . . ."