St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Museum turning 50

St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Museum turning 50

Robert Louis Stevenson mural

"Painted Pirates," a mural painted by Nimbus Arts students, is on display at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.

A museum devoted to a 19th-century literary figure might not sound very exciting or culturally relevant. Fortunately, St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Museum is both – and its supporters want to take it to the next level.

The museum is gearing up for its most ambitious event ever, a Nov. 2 fundraiser at Duckhorn Vineyards. Organizers want to raise $50,000 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the museum’s founding by Norman Strouse, a retired advertising executive and avid RLS fan who wanted to share his vast collection of Stevensoniana with the public.

The upcoming fundraiser will offer food, Duckhorn wines, live and silent auction items, music by local Celtic band Kith & Kin, and the presentation of the first Stevenson Award to former museum board president Don Fraser, in recognition of his service to the community and the museum.

The fundraiser’s success is vital to the museum’s long-term strategy of using technology to make its collection more accessible to students, teachers, scholars and the public.

Proceeds will fund a scanner, equipment and supplies necessary to digitize the museum’s collection and sync it with the California State Archives. New iPads will feature educational programs for kids and enable international visitors to interact with the collection in their own language — starting with French and Spanish. A French visitor could point an iPad at the little pair of gloves that Henry James left at Stevenson’s house and – voila! – read about the exhibit in French.

The museum has already done a great job reaching out to kids, holding an RLS-themed scavenger hunt and collaborating with Nimbus Arts and RLS Middle School on public art projects.

Even kids who haven’t read “Kidnapped” or “Treasure Island” are familiar with the tropes he popularized, like hidden treasure and flamboyant pirates. It’s impossible to miss Stevenson’s influence on popular characters like Captain Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. There’s even a new film adaptation of “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in the works.

Locals can visit the museum to learn about Stevenson’s rather unconventional honeymoon on Mount St. Helena, which inspired his travelogue “The Silverado Squatters.” The museum also hosts an annual Stevenson Poetry Night.

The museum is a useful resource for scholars who routinely call asking to review a letter or manuscript. It draws a lot of tourists during the summer, and it’s surprisingly popular among foreign visitors – further evidence of the cultural pervasiveness of Stevenson’s work.

We were impressed by the long-term, high-tech vision laid out by Gerry Working, board president, and Barrett Dahl, the museum’s enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable executive director. They want to take care of the collection and expand the museum in terms of physical space, technology and accessibility.

That’s where things get complicated. The museum is connected to the library building, and the city is evaluating conceptual plans that could involve remodeling the library, turning it into a City Hall, or tearing it down. The city owns the museum building, but the museum has 15 years left on a 55-year lease on the underlying property.

The museum deserves a voice as the discussions surrounding City Hall and the library move forward. One way or another, the city needs to accommodate the largest publicly accessible collection of Stevensoniana in the world.

With an endowment of just under $1 million and an annual budget of $120,000, the museum is small but determined, with big plans that deserve our support. Drop by the museum, buy tickets to attend the Nov. 2 fundraiser, get on the museum’s mailing list at, or donate whatever you can.

Most important, recognize the museum as the vibrant community jewel that it is.

The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.

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