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Ancient Artifacts, Priceless Paintings and Delicious Food All Under One Roof

Written By: Dan Peel Making History at Bowers Museum
Photographed By: Madeline Craig

You don’t have to fly to a foreign country to brush up on a little culture. A more realistic alternative that still entails exploring new scenes while tasting internationally inspired dishes is The Bowers Museum. Opening in 1936, this museum houses permanent exhibits, including Ancient Arts of China and Spirits and Headhunters where you can find art fixtures as large as a decorative canoe from Taiwan and as small as an aquamarine-colored copper bell from the Ming Dynasty. Bowers is also the home of the permanent galleries Vision of the Shaman, California Legacies and California: The Golden Years, which hold secrets of California’s rich history in the form of stonework, basketry and oil landscape paintings. And on top of their stunning collections, Bowers Museum just opened a Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant, Tangata, which provides a perfect opportunity to sharpen my culinary as well as aesthetic tastes.

The Thompson Foyer, featuring Loretta Yang’s exquisite glass sculpture “A Great Wish” in the form of a sleeping infant and a massive mural by Raul Anguiano, takes you past one of the most recent exhibits: Mysteries from the Tomb: The Face Beneath the Mask. Within rests a gold leaf and linen mummy mask from 330 to 332 B.C. with visible impressions of its wearer’s face as well as an image of the god Osiris.

You continue down the foyer into the John M. Lee Court, where wooden shrine guardians from the Igbo people in Nigeria pose on the wall opposite the stone sculptures, fountains and olive trees of the Margaret and Cleo Key Courtyard. From here you’ll get a chance to explore Ancient Arts of China. This exhibit covers cultural art from the Neolithic Era to the Zhou Dynasty with displays of bronze vessels, pendants, distinct black pottery and a reproduction of a Ming Dynasty style scholar study. Also of note is the latest museum exhibit, Popol Vuh: Watercolors of Diego Rivera–an array of 17 paintings by Rivera centered on the Popol Vuh, a sacred Quiché Maya text.

The Spirits and Headhunters gallery is covered from floor-to-ceiling in art and artifacts from the Pacific region of the world. Behold a human tooth necklace, 4-foot tall ceremonial masks and sculptures modeled over human skulls. Tropical bird songs play in the background while you traverse this raw landscape filled with statues and ceremonial bone daggers from the 19th and 20th centuries.

If you’ve driven around Santa Ana during the past few months, you were bound to pass under the decorative streetlamp banners announcing the exhibit The Red that Colored the World, which is open now until February 21, 2016. While we see the color red on a daily basis, we rarely think of the cultural significance of this bold color. From tapestries, British officers coats, sculptures, textiles and an array of visual art, this exhibit encapsulates how pervasive the color red truly is in a variety of cultures. This gallery also featured an interactive exhibit that detailed the process of creating red ink. The kicker card is this: strawberry ice cream, maraschino cherries, Airborne and lipstick are all colored with red pigment derived from cochineal bugs. The exhibit also has a coat rack of historical reconstructions of clothing to try on, which is a plus whether you brought kids or are just entertaining your inner child.

After seeing everything inside Bowers, anyone is bound to work up a hearty appetite. Tangata, which serves Asiatic-style lunches from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., is fashioned in white and red, which pairs nicely with The Red That Colored the World exhibit. A tinted sunroof, cozy chairs you can melt into and artistically dressed ceiling lights create a relaxing atmosphere to wind down and talk about your favorite exhibits over a bite or a drink.

The dishes here have artistic flares of their own. If you’re a seafood lover like me, I suggest you dive into the crispy calamari, which is served with red and green peppers and a delectable Thai eggplant puree, or the Manila clams, steamed and served on a bed of noodles and coconut milk. If you’ve really worked up an appetite, the thing to try is the Korean marinated skirt steak. It’s flavorful, cooked to tender perfection and served with spicy cabbage and charred green onions.

To top off your meal, Tangata offers a spread of cocktails inspired by regions spanning from French Polynesia and South America to the Far East. Standouts include the tart Peruvian Smash, made with Pisco, mashed lemon and strawberries and the Flaming Zombie, a mix of Jamaican and Puerto Rican rums, falernum and bitters that’s crowned with a flaming slice of lime. If you happen to be recovering from strong drinks, the water specialist at Tangata has ensured that the menu includes Vichv Catalan, a mineral-rich sparkling water from Spain that has been sought out by rulers to quell hangovers since the Middle Ages. At Bower’s Museum, even the water carries a bit of history.

Bowers Museum
2002 N Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92706

B R U S H /// Up on Your Art History at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.