Benson is new Maturango Museum director

Longtime resident brings love of community and culture to her position

Benson is new Maturango Museum directorBy REBECCA NEIPP, News Review Staff Writer

When Debbie Benson arrived for work at the Maturango Museum early Friday morning, she noticed an inordinate number of Land Rovers in an otherwise empty parking lot. As that number continued to climb (eventually reaching two dozen), she leapt into ambassadorial mode to see how she could accommodate this mystery group of travelers.

“Turns out this is the Southern California Land Rover Club, and they are meeting here at the museum on their way to Death Valley,” Benson said while making the rounds among the intrepid high-desert visitors.

“I didn’t know they were coming, but I’m glad they did. And I’m glad I could be here to meet them!”

According to Benson’s collaborators at the museum, this is how she approaches every part of her role as director — with energy, enthusiasm and a warm, welcoming attitude.

The Maturango Museum is not only a center of preservation and celebration for our regional history and culture but also an outpost for world travelers looking for adventure in the high desert.

“This is a big part of our job — helping people get to places like Death Valley in a safe manner,” said Benson. “Getting to show off our little part of the world to people like our visitors this morning is one of my favorite parts of this job.”

When previous director, Harris Brokke, retired earlier this year, Benson, at that time a board member and volunteer, was appointed as interim director during the transition of recruiting a replacement.

“Debbie jumped in when we really needed her,” said boardmember Dan Burnett. “And she has done a heck of a job so far. We tried to fill the position, but when we couldn’t, she agreed to continue for the next couple of years. Of course we are hoping that once that time passes she will stick with it.”

Burnett said that with no disrespect meant to her predecessor, Benson has already addressed many longterm hang-ups at the museum.

“She is so pleasant and energetic and enthusiastic. I’m pleased with her, and I think the rest of the board is, too!”

Burnett said he believed part of what made her a perfect fit for that role is her history in the community. “She served on the board for years, so she understands the museum. She was raised here, so she understands the community. Her dad was a noted guy on base, so she understands China Lake. And she is absolutely great with people — we are just delighted that she is willing to serve.”

Benson agreed that her history in the valley has influenced her outlook at the museum.

She was raised on base where here father, Bud Sewell, was a highly respected detonation physicist. He was also active in the community, “in fact my kids thought that he was in the Dixieland Band for a living,” as was her mother Barbara, who served on the museum board when she was a little girl.

“Because she was heavily involved, and all of us were from a very young age, I felt like I knew every exhibit by heart,” she said.

She and her husband, Dick, went away for school, and came back to raise their family. She was a manager at Vons for 23 years until the store closed. After that she once again turned her attention to the museum — volunteer on the art gallery committee, helping with the Open Studio Tours, and eventually joining the board of trustees.

“One of the reasons I stayed active is because the museum is a critical cultural hub in our community,” said Benson.

“Historically, archeologically and artistically, we have so many resources and experts that make valuable contributions to the culture in our community.

“As we looked for a director, I realized that one of the most critical things we needed was someone who cares about this community. I also realized that is a tough thing to find in the typical recruitment process.”

After spending a couple of months in an interim capacity — including a trial-by-fire leading up to the petroglyph festival earlier this month — Benson agreed to take over long term.

“One of the most important things I do is help coordinate with the docents and our other volunteers,” she said.

“It’s hard not to be proud of this group of people. Each and every one of them brings something very valuable to the table in terms of knowledge and skill sets. Then they take that collective talent and use it to reach out to our youth and everyone else who wants to learn about our valley.”

Benson said that events like the festival have put the museum on the map for travelers, but even residents remark about the hidden treasures available to the local set.

“I hear all the time, ‘oh I didn’t know you had a labyrinth’ or ‘I didn’t know you had an observatory.’ We do regular exhibits for art and history, who host concerts and educational lectures — there is always something new here.”

Benson said that she believes as the physical footprint of the museum has grown, she believes the mission will grow with it.

“I think we are in a very transitional time. As we expand, I think our mental view of ourselves and our involvement has to grow as well. Getting through that adjustment as smoothly as possible is one of my goals.”

Benson invited residents to come visit the museum. “And hopefully some of those people would like to volunteer as well. We have so many ways that people can contribute — anyone who is willing would be welcome here.”

Chief among those needs are people with fund-raising know-how, she said. “The museum has been an integral part of our community for more than 50 years. We are here because of the donations of time and money have already given. I want to keep that going.”

Debbie Benson sits on the museum’s picturesque grounds, with the main entrance to the museum in the background. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2014-11-26