San Diego: Museum of Man

The San Diego Museum of Man is a museum of anthropology located in Balboa Park, San Diego, California and housed in the historic landmark buildings of the California Quadrangle.



The museum traces its origins to the Panama-California Exposition, which opened in 1915 on the occasion of the inauguration of the Panama Canal. The central exhibit of the exposition, “The Story of Man through the Ages”, was assembled under the direction of noted archaeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett of the School of American Archaeology (later renamed the School of American Research, and since 2007 the School for Advanced Research[1]). Hewett organized expeditions to gather pre-Columbian pottery from the American Southwest and to Guatemala for objects and reproductions of Maya civilization monuments. Numerous other materials were gathered from expeditions sent by anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička of the Smithsonian Institution, which gathered casts and specimens from Africa, Siberia, Alaska and Southeast Asia. Osteological remains and trepanated crania from Peruvian sites were also obtained.[2]

As the Exposition drew to a close, a group of citizens led by George Marston formed the San Diego Museum Association to retain the collection and convert it into a permanent museum, with Dr. Hewett as the first director. The name was changed to “Museum of Man” in 1942 to emphasize the museum’s concentration on anthropology. “San Diego” was added to the name in 1978.[1]

The museum is housed in four original buildings from the 1915 Exposition. Those include the California Quadrangle, which was designed for the Exposition by American architect Bertram G. Goodhue, and the California Tower, one of the most prominent landmarks in San Diego. The Quadrangle and Tower are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[3]

The main museum, including exhibits and gift shop, is housed in the ornate California Building with its landmark tower. The tower is not open to the public, although the city is considering a plan to open the tower to visitors in time for the 2015 centennial of the Exposition.[4] The tower contains a carillon and chiming clock which can be heard all over Balboa Park.

The museum also occupies three other original 1915 buildings. Administrative offices and an auditorium are housed in the Gill Administration Building, immediately adjacent to the Museum on the west. Originally known as the Balboa Park Administration Building, it was built in 1911 and designed by architect Irving Gill. It was the first building erected in Balboa Park.[5] On the opposite (south) side of the California Quadrangle, housed in what was originally the Fine Arts Building, is Evernham Hall, a banquet room which is also used for temporary exhibits. Immediately adjacent is the Saint Francis Chapel, a small Spanish-style chapel available for private events such as weddings.[6]


The museum’s collections and permanent exhibits focus on the pre-Columbian history of the western Americas, with materials drawn from Native American cultures of the Southern California region, and Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya. The museum also holds one of the most important collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities in the United States, which includes authentic mummies, burial masks, figurines, and seven painted wooden coffins. The most extraordinary of these is an extremely rare Ptolemaic child’s coffin — only six others are known to exist worldwide. Total holdings include more than 100,000 documented ethnographic items, more than 30,000 books and journals, and 25,000 photographic images.

Layout of exhibits

First floor

Admissions and Gift Shop

Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth displays several huge Maya monuments,or stelae, in the Rotunda Gallery. These are casts of the original monuments in Quirigua, a site in Guatemala. The casts were made for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and have been on display ever since, except during World War II, when the Navy took control of most of Balboa Park and turned the Museum into a hospital. Today these casts are studied by researchers tracing the history of the Maya through their hieroglyphic writing, because the casts are in better condition than the original monuments, which have suffered some weathering and erosion since the casts were made. The exhibition also includes archaeological discoveries highlighting the creativity and beliefs of the ancient Maya: masks, bowls, figurines, etc.

Adventures in Photography: This temporary exhibit is a collection of vintage photographs belonging to the University of Pennsylvania features anthropologic scenes from various parts of the world. Complementary artifacts were drawn from the Museum’s collections.

access/ABILITY: This temporary exhibit on loan from the Boston Children’s Museum is a hands-on exploration of various aspects of disability including a wheelchair obstacle course, a multisensory city walk, and a design challenge area. Visitors can learn phrases in American Sign Language and type their name in Braille.

Second floor

Footsteps Through Time: This exhibit displays replicas of skulls and reconstructions of early hominids, arranged to show the timeline of human evolution. The reconstructions include Lucy, the Taung Child, Zinj, Mrs. Ples, and a replica of a Neanderthal skeleton based on the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Old Man. A small reconstruction of a cave allows visitors to walk into the habitat of Cro-Magnon man, and view the bones of their kills and replicas of their cave paintings. The Primate Hall and Human Lab are also a part of the exhibit.

  • Primate Hall: The Primate Hall displays skeletons of various nonhuman primates. Also included are two life-size reconstructions of Gigantopithecus and of Mbongo, a gorilla who lived at the San Diego Zoo in the 1930s and was the zoo’s biggest gorilla on record. There are videos on chimpanzees and chimpanzee behavior that play on small kiosks.
  • Human Lab: This exhibit explains the advances of Homo sapiens and modern humans and gives a glimpse into what our future might be. Also included in the exhibit is the preserved brain of Mbongo the gorilla. Outside is The Dig, where visitors are able to replicate the unearthing of fossils.

Kumeyaay: Native Californians: This exhibit explores traditional Kumeyaay lifeways, featuring the art of pottery and basket making, food procurement, dress and adornment, traditional medicine, games, and ceremonies. Artifacts and photographs from the museum’s collection highlight the rich cultural heritage of the Kumeyaay, offering a glimpse of the life of the ancestors of today’s present day people.

Ancient Egypt: This exhibit displays painted mummy coffins, funerary masks, and the mummified remains of two Egyptian mummies and falcons. The majority of artifacts date from the Late Period and from the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Also included is a collection of New Kingdom stone carvings and some pottery dating from the Amarna era. The exhibit also houses the remains of the Lemon Grove mummy, discovered in a garage in the namesake suburb nearby. There is a video on the mummification process. Next to it is a small presentation on bog bodies.

Children’s Discovery Center: The Discovery Center gives younger visitors an opportunity for interactive, sensory learning about ancient Egyptian civilization, and about the role of anthropologists and archaeologists in the research and interpretation of the culture.

Evernham Hall

Instruments of Torture: Instruments of Torture is a temporary exhibition featuring rare artifacts on tour from Italy’s Museo della Tortura.

Special events

The Rock Art Symposium is an annual event held every November since 1975. It is a day-long series of lectures and presentations from the world of rock art research.

“Tower After Hours” events are held three to five times a year and focus on the heritage and culture of a particular cultural community in San Diego. They are held in the Museum’s rotunda and feature music, dance, food and other aspects of the culture in focus.

In popular culture

The California Building and its tower were used by Orson Welles as the principal features of the fictitious Xanadu estate in the classic film Citizen Kane.[7]

The Chuck Norris film “Top Dog” contains scenes filmed at the Museum of Man.


  1. ^ a b San Diego Museum of Man – History
  2. ^ “About the Museum — History”, San Diego Museum of Man (n.d.).
  3. ^ “California Quadrangle”. National Park Service. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  4. ^ Showley, Roger (November 12, 2012). “California Tower may open to visitors”. San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
  5. ^ “The California Building”. Museum of Man website. Retrieved 3 November 2012.
  6. ^ “Private events at the Museum of Man”. Museum of Man website. Retrieved 3 November 2012.
  7. ^ Fodors Guide