The Bowers Museum — “Orange County’s finest”

  • Tom Dell
  • July 16, 2017
  • Our destination this week is the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.  The Bowers calls itself Orange County’s finest museum.  I wouldn’t dispute that claim, but I’m not especially qualified to cast a vote.

    This post could be subtitled “Art and the Philistine.”  You see, I’m not the last person you’d expect to find in an art museum . . . but I’m definitely one of them.  But because of health-related travel restrictions, I’ll be aiming my little white car to more local destinations, mixing those in with material already collected and other destinations I’ll hopefully be visiting between September and year-end.  Expect to find me in places like the Getty Museum, L.A. County Art Museum, San Diego Air and Space Museum, and the Petersen Automotive Museum in coming weeks.

    This handcarved chess set is displayed in the “Ancient Arts of China” gallery

    The city-owned Bowers Museum has been around since 1936, although it closed from 1986 to 1992 for what it calls “a period of self-study.”  Since then, it’s expanded its special programs, including lectures, classes and children’s art educational offerings.

    Special exhibitions and permanent collections

    All in all, I liked the Bowers Museum.  It doesn’t try to be all things to all people.  Given its size, it wisely has targeted its mission on a few things, then focused on doing them well.  Its president, Dr. Peter C. Keller, says, “I’m often told that one of the great benefits of a visit to the Bowers is that we are very approachable and not overwhelming in our offerings. I hope you agree.”

    Pre-Columbian Mayan art


    Another piece from the China gallery

    You’ll always find a special exhibition here.  Currently, it’s an exhibition entitled Frank Lloyd Wright – the Architecture of the Interior.”  It will be available through August 20.  Beginning July 23, there’ll also be an exhibition of Edward Weston’s photography (which I would love to see). 

    The permanent collections were recently augmented with a set of gemstone carvings by Harold Van Pelt.  Other permanent collections are:

    — A Pacific Islands gallery entitled “Spirits and Headhunters”

    — “Ancient Arts of China: A 5,000-year legacy”

    — “Missions and Ranchos”

    — “First Californians”

    —  “California Bounty”

    My favorite sections were the China and Pacific Islands galleries, both of which had lots of wonderful artifacts.  There’s no substitute for seeing them up close and personal.  Ditto for the gallery on California’s native peoples, which focused on those living in our area, and the gallery of local history in the Mission and Ranchos section.

    Artifacts from the native Californians who lived near the coast are rare, and the Bowers Museum has a nice collection

    You have to backtrack

    The museum’s layout is pretty straightforward, although I didn’t like the traffic flow.  For example, no one should miss the “Arts of China” and “Spirits and Headhunters” exhibits, but after visiting them, you have to backtrack all the way to the entrance foyer to move to other key exhibits.  The same is true from the “Mission and Ranchos” section at the other end of the facility.

    I also would have liked a printed guide.  Guests get a map, but it’s aimed at kids, and there’s no descriptive detail on the exhibits.  Frankly, with the admission price what it is, there’s no excuse for not enriching the visitor experience for those of us not used to cell phone tours.

    The Bowers Museum’s Spanish-style exterior

    If you’re a power user of your cell phone, you’ll find an audio tour guide.  Had I known about it, I’m sure my daughter could have set it up for me and shown me how it works.  If you’re interested, go to, then scroll all the way to the bottom (which I didn’t do before my visit).  IMHO, a printed copy of this PDF should be given (or at least offered) to every visitor.  It’s a lot better map than the silly scavenger hunt handout you get now.

    The museum’s landing page is  I looked for something on YouTube that might interest you, but didn’t find anything.


    Here’s what you need to know to visit the Bowers Museum.  First, where is it?  Exit the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at Main St. South and drive about ½ mile to 2002 N. Main.  You’ll find museum parking lots ($6) on both the north and south sides of the museum.

    The museum is open 10-4 Tuesday through Sunday.  Adult admission is $13 on weekdays and $15 on weekends.  For seniors and students 12 and older, it’s $10 on weekdays and $12 on weekends.

    Early Mexican mural

    On weekdays during the school year, be prepared for lots of school kids and bedraggled teachers.  But don’t bring your kids here.  The Bowers has a special annex called the Kidseum two blocks away at 1802 N. Main.  During the summer, its hours are the same as the main museum; admission is $8 for everyone over 2.

    Fountain in Bowers Museum courtyard

    You’ll find plenty of nearby places to have lunch.  The museum’s attractive Tangata Café is open 11-3.

    Thanks for joining Road Trips with Tom at the Bowers Museum.  Be sure to return Sunday, July 23, for a special treat, as we visit Montana’s Big Hole Valley – the heart and soul of Big Sky Country.

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