The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana

Looking for a bit of culture amid the traffic and shopping malls of the OC? Right up the street from Main Place Mall you’ll find all the culture you can handle at The Bowers Museum.

From outside the courtyard, the complex resembles a mission, complete with huge bronze bell above the entrance. I go at least once a month for my Bead Society meeting and throughout the year I’m treated to newlyweds posing on the lawns with the stucco walls or lush greenery as backdrop. As much as I love to ogle the wedding gowns, my favorite thing has to be the colorful zoot suits of the Hispanic wedding parties. Long purple coats, yards of silver chain and a snap brim hat start my day off with a smile!

Walking into the courtyard is like entering a cool, shady plaza in the Rancho California era of the 1800’s. Covered tile walkways, a rustic balcony and al fresco dining tables surround a small area of rolling lawns. The Bead Society holds it’s Bazaar here every April and events throughout the year are hosted by other affiliate groups and the museum itself, including celebrations of Kwanzaa and Dia De Los Muertos.

There are three major choices once you step inside the lobby of the museum itself. Eat, shop or stroll?
Tangata (which means “mankind” in Maori) is on your left, beckoning you to sample scrumptious, though expensive, food. I have to admit I’ve never eaten there but I’m told it’s wonderful. I can say the atmosphere is very nice since I’ve had to come into the museum several times through the restaurant in the early morning when the lobby doors were locked. It’s very bright and modern.

I usually like to hit the gift shop on the way out of a museum-that’s when I’ll know what it is I want to remember about my visit. The Gallery Shop is on your right and it’s a much more eclectic blend of books, jewelry, textiles and trinkets than your usual museum store. An entire corner is devoted to Mexican arts, the far wall is one huge bookcase and colorful clothing, jewelry and cards are everywhere. Since it’s a cultural museum, not an art museum, their gift shop reflects many different themes and peoples.

Onto the galleries. The Bowers enjoys a rare affiliation with The British Museum. I can’t explain the details but some of the past exhibits we’ve had from The British Museum have been phenomenal and I understand that the new wing being built right now will be devoted to British Museum exhibits. At any rate, the current exhibit is called Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient EgyptâÂ?¦Treasures from the British Museum and you don’t need to rush to see it – it doesn’t end until April 15, 2007. My husband, Dean, and I toured Mummies a few months ago and loved it. It’s always fascinating to see mummies and anything else, really, from the ancient worlds. Looking at 2000 year old artifacts makes me feel young! Anyway, the real draw here is seeing the new forensic techniques used to evaluate the mummies and their deaths. Much is being learned from mummies to the benefit of today’s medicine.

Other recent major exhibits at The Bowers have included Treasures from China, Gems! (several galleries filled with jewels and carvings – Heaven!) and clothing and artifacts of Evita.

If the Mummies didn’t tucker you out, take a stroll through The Bowers’ permanent exhibits. First Californians presents a feast of Native American art and artifacts and Vision of the Shaman, Song of the Priest features Pre-Columbian art from Mexico, Central and South America. California Legacies traces the history of settling the west, particularly the OC. Yes, before surfers and millionaires, there were silver spurs, ornately carved wooden crosses and intricate lace shawls. My favorite vantage point is a balcony above a room showing OC artifacts, including an altar that only a birds eye view can appreciate. Last time we were there, the galleries on the second floor were being set up with a new exhibition and I think Dean and I might have passed signs saying the floor was closedâÂ?¦ It was kinda cool having the place to ourselves. We’re just little Gallery Outlaws, I guessâÂ?¦

If that still isn’t enough culture for you and you still have energy, a few blocks away is Kidseum, the children’s part of the complex. Kidseum houses interactive displays and activities for the kids. They welcome school tours and have many learning opportunities for groups, including cultural art classes. Or you can get a Cultural Art Trunk, which contains projects on different themes, that you rent by the week. Or have a Docent or art instructor come to your classroom. If you’re a teacher, check out their “Teacher’s Guide for Museum Programs” PDF file under “Education” on their website.

As a member of The Bowers Museum, ($45/yr for students, $65/yr for adults, plus other levels of membership), you can enjoy lots of special programs throughout the year, plus travel opportunities and you can join the affiliate councils:

The African Cultural Arts Council
Bead Society of Orange County
Chinese Cultural Arts Council
Collectors Council
Docent Guild
Hispanic Arts Council
Italian Cultural Arts Council
Plein Air Art Council

The Bells, who serve as ambassadors of goodwill at the information desk and other functions.
I have to put in a plug for the Bead Society, which I love being a part of, so much so that I’m the Secretary. It gives me a chance to be with a friendly group of people who share a passion for beads every month, where we get to talk, listen to interesting speakers and give something back to the community by contributing to The Bowers with proceeds from our Bead Bazaar.

So, whether you live in Orange County or are visiting for fun or business, The Bowers can serve as your cultural fix. Relax, stroll, eat and, at least till 2007, visit your Mummy!

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