A family's interest in history was the foundation for a museum that today houses one of the finest collections of artifacts from many lands and varied cultures to be found in California. It's the Bowers Museum of Santa Ana.
The story has its beginning with Charles Bowers, who, in search of a more temperate climate, moved from Missouri and settled in Santa Ana in 1886.
In 1910, Bowers and his wife, Ada, traveled throughout the United States and Canada. They gathered color post cards wherever they went, and most of these were of historic monuments and landmarks. The Bowers became deeply interested in history, and particularly that of Orange County's early Spanish and Mexican eras. Their property had once been a rancho given to a family by a grant from the Spanish Crown.
The Bowers created a trust that would give their house and property to the city after their deaths. The City Council accordingly began work on the project in 1931. The family home was torn down and work was begun on a large building reflecting the architectural style of the early mission days. It opened in 1934, and slowly its collections began to grow.
Orange County's history is well represented, but the visitor will discover ever-changing exhibits from many countries, primarily those bordering the Pacific Rim; places whose shores touch the Pacific Ocean--Hawaii, Japan, Australia, Korea, Mexico, Central and South America. Africa is also represented.
Currently one hall is featuring the art of Black Africa. Studying this collection of masks, figurines and other objects, the viewer discovers examples of art that have been created by various tribes for thousands of years in such countries as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, the Ivory Coast and others. A brochure quotes the words of Victor Goloubet, a French archeologist, that expresses the relationship between the African artist and his materials, which are metal, ivory, terra cotta, beads and other media:
"African art is a pact between man and the forest. The forest lends man its lasting beauties so that he may turn them into gods; but the forest tells him 'make these gods in my image.' "
The masks on display are of particular interest, because they have been used by all societies in Africa since ancient times.
There is much more to see as one walks through the exhibit halls. One houses artifacts ranging from cooking utensils to musical instruments used by the natives in early Hawaii. Enter the Orange County history room where its most prized treasure is a five-foot statue of San Antonio de Padua (St. Anthony), which was carved in the 1700s and then carried from Mexico to the Mission San Juan Capistrano.
There is also a large, copper brandy still used at the mission between 1776 and 1834 to make the potent grape brandy called aguardiente.
An Indian room contains basketry examples of California, Southwest and Northwest Coast Indians. There are also objects of stone, beadwork and pottery.
If you are interested in quilts, mark Jan. 22 on your calendar. That is the date a collection of Amish quilts from the Museum of American Folk Art in New York will be placed on display.
This spring the Bowers Museum will begin a major expansion project that is being funded by the City of Santa Ana. Among the additions to the present structure will be two new galleries, a restaurant and a large auditorium.
Paul Piazza, director of the museum said: "We want people to have the opportunity to view a beautiful historical facility, and experience the pleasure of being able to see the finest examples of the cultural arts of the Americas and the Pacific."
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Information: (714) 972-1900.
To reach the museum take Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) to Santa Ana's second Main Street off ramp (marked south). Right 2 1/2 blocks to the museum at 2002 N. Main St.