A Gem of a Museum!
Bowers Museum – Santa Ana
Visited: September 2020
When Tracy and I heard that the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana was going to open back up, I immediately hopped online to secure early timed-reservations for the second day. It had been nearly nine months (seemed like nine years) since we had visited an indoor museum, so we were excited to go anywhere, and since the Bowers also featured a special Disney exhibition, the timing seemed perfect.
In the early 1900s, Charley Bowers and his wife, Ada, moved from Missouri to Santa Ana and the family home was located on property that “had once been a rancho given to a family by a grant from the Spanish Crown.” The family created a trust that would bequeath the house and property to the city upon their deaths. Subsequently a large building was constructed, and in 1936 the ever-expanding Bowers Museum (now more than 100,000 artifacts) opened its doors.
We reserved 10 a.m. timed tickets for the special exhibit, Inside the Walt Disney Archives: 50 Years of Preserving the Magic (we would tour the rest of the museum afterward). The special exhibition (which has been extended through the end of February 2021) “celebrates The Walt Disney Company on the 50th anniversary of its archives, with behind-the-scenes access never before granted to the public.” More than 400 objects are on display ranging from original artwork to some ghoulish characters from Disneyland to the car from one of my favorite movies when I was a kid, The Absent-Minded Professor.
I always try to get the earliest reservations for visiting a museum, because (1) it’s a great way to beat the crowds and (2) in these days of Covid, the less people I’m around, the better. Sometimes we’re more alone than ever, often to my wife’s consternation. At 9:25 a.m. (the website had said to arrive 30 minutes early) we pulled into the literally empty Bowers Museum parking lot, where the bemused Tracy immediately took a photo of me to text her friends pictures of the “idiot” she married. As it turned out, getting here that early turned out to be quite fortuitous in a few ways.
Yes, we became the first two people in line, and by the time 10 a.m. rolled around, there were about 30 people behind us. Meanwhile, Tracy spent her time taking a few photos, and the Birds of Paradise gave her time to spend away from her early-bird husband.
Before entering the museum everyone had their temperatures checked. As we strolled underneath Dumbo into the Disney Exhibition, I told the guy checking our tickets, “Well, someone has to be first.”
The actual Disney archives (13,000 boxes of documents, 20 million photos, 12,000 catalogued books and several thousand costumes and prop pieces) are not open to the public, but in celebration of its 50 years we got to see a small portion of them.
Since the rest of the crowd seemed to take forever to walk toward the exhibit, we scooted by the reproduction of Walt Disney’s desk, which was utilized by Tom Hanks’ in his portrayal of Walt Disney in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks. We also checked out a painting of what would become the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. I think that ride is where I started my love for puns.
I always liked classical music after watching Fantasia.
We said hello to Walt (the gentleman not wearing a mask) and moved to the next room. For the next hour or so, we were, for the most part, alone.
There were Mickey Mouse photos galore from the past 90 years or so.
His wife was nowhere to be soon, so I assumed she might be out shopping at the Minnie Mall. Although never married onscreen, Walt once said, “In private life, Mickey is married to Minnie.” I wondered if she ever sang, “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine ….”
Next up was the first ticket ever purchased for Disneyland by Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother and co-founder of The Walt Disney Company.
I never saw Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but I recognized the bag from Mary Poppins. It was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, although the colors were atrocious.
We ducked into the next room and ran into Donald.
Wham! Pow! a poster of Gotham City’s crimefighters Batman and Robin … complete with villains.
There were prop storybooks from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Ah, the days walking through (and up) the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland. Climbing up those steps, one risked life … and limb. There was also a branch at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. I never packed my trunk to go there.
They should have been playing ELO’s Evil Woman when we passed by her.
We asked this guy if we were near the movie costumes, and it seemed he didn’t know the answer.
My buddies from the Haunted Mansion said we didn’t have a ghost of a chance of finding the costumes, but i could see right through them.
The costumes were behind us.
Tracy said, “Here’s Elsa.” I replied. “Who is Elsa?” Tracy was Frozen in disbelief.
To be or not to be, this Queen Elizabeth (left) costume was worn by Judy Dench in Shakespeare in Love. All’s well that ends well. On the right, Glenn Close (as Cruella De Vil) wore this in the 2000 movie 102 Dalmatians, a movie deemed a dog by more than 102 critics.
Cinderella! Cinderella! No, wicked Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett).
Mary’s and Jack’s costumes were Poppin’ in the 2018 movie.
Speaking of Jack, we traveled a little south by southwest and found Captain Jack’s compass from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Personally, I thought the movie was Arrrrrrrful.
For some reason, I thought this character should have been framed, but I don’t know by who.
Tom Hanks’ best friend Wilson from Cast Away seemed to be a little deflated.
No one would dare Pooh Pooh this cute guy.
Tracy and I walked at an accelerated pace to some movie cars. Dean Jones starred in Herbie The Love Bug.
I was “Flubber-gasted” to see the car from The Absent-Minded Professor. I think I had my mom take me to that movie about a dozen times.
Recently Ford vs. Ferrari was an Oscar nominee. We raced over to see the car.
Lastly, we checked out some “Disney Legends.” For a minute, I thought I was at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. There’s the absent-minded professor himself, Fred MacMurray.
Sir Elton John and the late-great Jim Henson were among the legends.
As were Robin Williams and my first crush Julie Andrews.
The last legend was Richard Sherman (not the NFL star), which is why I was humming It’s A Small World (After All) the next few hours. He and brother, Robert, wrote the most annoying tune of all time (along with dozens of great ones).
That was it for the Disney exhibit (worth the extra money, but we wished there could have been more on display), but for Tracy and me the day was just beginning. We had a museum to explore. I asked at the front desk if they had an audio tour or map, and they responded in one word … “No.” So we just winged it through the wings and saw virtually everything the museum has to offer … we think.
First up was the hallway outside the Disney exhibition, Sacred Realms: Temple Murals by Shashi Dhoj Tulachand (photo from Bowers website).
The detail in each one of these painting is remarkable.
These details include “deities, mythologies and the use of repeated and abstract design.”
As my friend Spock would say, “Fascinating!”
We walked through the Ceramics of Western Mexico area where ancient objects had been created and “served as burial offerings, placed beside deceased members of aristocratic society in shaft tombs (vertical tunnels from the ground that lead to burial chambers up to 50-feet underground.)” The one on the left is nearly 2,000 years old, while the dogs on the right might be from 200 BC (that is more than 15,000 years old in dog years).
The next section of the museum called California Bounty: Image and Identity showed off interesting and, as the website states, “cherished” paintings. This part of the museum takes “a rambling journey (sort of like our vacations) through California’s visual history, a history shaped by Mexican and Anglo traditions as well as the state’s position on the Pacific Rim.” California in the early 20th century was being touted as “America’s little corner of the Old World” and this painting called Three Spanish Figures denotes its Spanish legacy.
Tracy and I jockeyed for position to see the Equestrian Portrait of Don José Andrés Sepulveda, a man who had quite a collection of racehorses, who obviously lived in a stable environment. I tried not to stirrup any trouble.
Emigdeo Vasquez, who died six years ago, was known as “The Godfather of Chicano Artists.” He painted a number of famous murals including an 8 ft. x 100 ft, one at the Bowers entitled Visions of Orange County (photo courtesy of the Bowers Museum).
It unfortunately had to be destroyed when the museum expanded, but he executed another one at the Santa Ana downtown bus terminal. This is one of his paintings at the Bowers.
Early 20th century artist Frank Coburn used flowers as his focal points in an Ideal California Day at a Los Angeles flower shop and Japanese Hydrangeas.
Being the flower freak that she is, Tracy admired paintings by Alberta Binford McCloskey …
… and husband William. His oil on canvas painting of paper-wrapped tangerines was exquisite (photo courtesy of Bowers Museum … tough lighting on this one).
Alberta, who was considered the better painter of the two, and William divorced. She died in Jamaica, where she had gone for her health, in 1911. He passed away on December 30th, 1941.
The next room (photo taken from upstairs) is called California Legacies. The room features displays representing the history of Orange County and California. The statue of St. Anthony, originally from the Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, stands out prominently.
I took note of the first brandy still brought into California.
There are also artifacts from California’s missions.
The wood ceiling stood out, as well.
Upstairs was a continuation of California Bounty, with a painting of Olvera Street and a couple of Laguna Beach.
We walked around taking in some of the more intriguing paintings.
The ceiling in this room also stood out. A mural painted on the ceiling is actually a panorama of California history. The lighting made it a little harder to see.
Back downstairs we wandered toward another wing on the opposite end of the museum, passing a Dharma King and a colorful mural.
The next room was a hidden gem … literally. Gemstone Carvings: The Masterworks of Harold Van Pelt was surprisingly interesting. I usually don’t care for these type of exhibits, but some of these pieces were rather mesmerizing.
A bivalve shell with a jeweled brooch inside made of green-blue color faceted tourmalene is surrounded by pearls and diamonds.
The “Izok” Hollow Quartz skull was carved from a 52-pound quartz crystal.
There are 20 faceted gemstones spilling out of this faceted quartz egg.
A jewel box and a petrified palm wood box also stood out.
Tracy said, “Do you want to see Spirits and Headhunters.” I thought , “Great. I can have a Gin and Tonic while someone finds me a new job.” As it turned out, these headhunters took their job quite literally.
The Art of the Pacific Islands included masks, statues and other antiquities from this region of the world. The large carved statues honor ancestors. We learned that New Guinea was the “Land of the Headhunter.” It was kind of amazing to read that “as recently as the mid-20th century” headhunting was “widely practiced.” I told Tracy, “Well that’s one way to get a head in life.”
This late 19th century Feast Bowl stood out.
These Fire Dance Masks are worn as dancers walk through fire, “kicking up sparks of burning embers.” If they make it through, I guess they could be called sole survivors.
There were masks galore …
… and body suits that looked terribly uncomfortable.
These two looked like me dancing after my third martini.
Are you mocking me?
These figures are created to “evoke fear.”
A portrait of the dead from Vanatu caught our attention. This is a skull of an important man, which was removed after the body decomposed. The skull was “then used as part of the effigy in ceremonies for the dead.”
We stepped back into a larger room that led to to the Ancient Arts of China. This Chinese Temple Drum “bears the symbols of the Eight Immortals: fan, castanets, sword, flower basket, double-gourd, flue, lotus and bamboo drum and rods. Together, they signify happiness.”
Inside the Ancient Arts of China was a “Scholars Area.” Having barely passed astronomy, I didn’t feel I belonged here.
The early 20th century Chess Set dates from the Qing Dynasty and is beautiful …
… but made less so due to the fact that elephant’s tusks were used to carve these pieces.
This Temple banner might have been hung in a Taoist Temple, while an early 19th-century Porcelain Lidded Jar had a cool top.
From the early 17th-century we ran into Guanyin, who was originally a male bodhisattva, but when introduced in China became the Goddess of Mercy.
She is the “protector of all who are in distress (she’s got a tough job this year), especially those at sea, which probably explains the fish underneath her throne.”
I would have walked a mile for this tomb figurine; Pottery Camel and Rider, from the 6th century.
The piece was created during the Pre-Tang Dynasty. If I remember correctly from my history books, the actual Tang Dynasty was known for its tasty powdered flavor drinks.
These wine vessels could date as far back as 700 BC. They have aged well.
Finally, these Terra Cotta Horses are from the early Ming Dynasty.
Tracy asked me if I wanted to see anything else inside. I replied, “Neigh.”
We stepped out for a few moments to enjoy the Key Courtyard, although we didn’t need one to open the door to get out.
We saw Mrs. Bowers Memorial fountain and a statue of a man unknown.
This Bell Stone is one of the “Ringing Rocks of California.” It seems that Native Americans discovered that “some rocks resonate when struck.” From that statement, I deduced this meant The Stones performed at the very first California Rock concert.
Finally, in a King Arthur moment, I tried to pull the sword from another stone. Torn rotator cuff surgery is now on the near horizon.
Our tour was done, but I had one more question for the woman at the front desk. “I was told there’s no audio guide, but some of the pieces have audio signs near them. Was she mistaken?” The answer: “No, there’s not an audioguide, but if you go to our website you can download an app you can use in the museum.” Where was this lady two hours ago?
And remember, we got to the museum very early. When we returned to the parking lot, the sign read parking was six bucks, and there was a man taking the money as cars entered. What to do? Well, since I would not have paid six dollars for parking, we got in the car, drove past the gentleman and politely waved, and we were on our way. As we drove around the corner we saw street parking and another parking lot, which was free. So if you go, park there.
There is a restaurant on the premises with outdoor seating that recently re-opened for lunch.
Tracy and I were surprised how much we enjoyed the Bowers Museum, because its eclectic collection of art and artifacts is not something we would normally take a lot of interest in. However, many of the pieces were thought-provoking, and it was fun to learn about some history we didn’t know much about. In addition, it was just nice to be back out doing something we would have taken for granted seven months ago.
Today, of course, nothing’s normal and nothing is taken for granted, but our few hours at the Bowers provided a much needed respite from all the craziness.
The Bowers Museum
2002 North Main Street
Santa Ana, CA 92706
Museum (Must get timed reservations online)
Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
$13 Weekdays • $15 Weekends
Seniors (62 & over) $10 Weekdays • $12 Weekends
Students 12+ $10
Under 12 Free
Walt Disney Archives (Must get timed reservations online)
$23 Weekdays • $25 Weekends (includes museum)
Seniors $20 Weekdays • $22 Weekends
Children 3-11 $5
Parking: $6 lot on premises