A visit to the Discovery Museum of Orange County can be, as assistant program director Priscilla Melanson puts it, “a step back in time to the Victorian age.”
The museum occupies the historic 1898 Hiram Clay Kellogg House near Centennial Regional Park in Santa Ana and tries to create a turn-of-the-century world through a collection of Orange County artifacts and memorabilia dating from about 1880 to 1910. It’s an environment where visitors can play recordings on one of Thomas Edison’s original phonographs in the living room or slip on a pair of dainty high-button shoes in the upstairs bedroom.
“Most people tend to forget what that period was like, and we want to refresh their memories,” Melanson said. “They can come in, walk through the house, go upstairs, touch things, whatever it takes to connect with the past.
“Everyone seems to like stepping back for a while. I think they like to remember how simple things were then. It also shows how hard things could be and how much easier we’ve got it now.”
It was a time, she pointed out, before washing machines, television, high-tech stereos, microwave ovens, dishwashers and central heating.
The museum, jointly run by the Santa Ana Unified School District and a private foundation, opened in November as both a learning and entertainment center. Local schoolchildren are offered tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the museum is open to the public on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Since opening, nearly 2,500 students and 1,000 adults have visited the museum, Melanson said.
Visitors are guided through the house’s eight rooms, which include a fully restored kitchen, parlor and bathroom. Each contains several authentic period pieces, as well as a few reproductions. It’s a hands-on museum, so most of the items can be touched, even used. The kitchen, for example, has a turn-of-the-century stove that docents sometimes use to cook pies and cookies they later offer to guests.
There’s also an “icebox,” a butter churn, a corn sheller, an apple peeler and other utensils. Nearby, there’s an old washboard and ringer where guides occasionally demonstrate how clothes were once cleaned.
A short walk to the living room and there’s a telephone, an early picture projector called a “magic lantern,” a slide projector and a piano. Up the steep and winding stairs and into the bedrooms, visitors can find Victorian clothes, period quilts, a sewing machine and antique furniture. Most of the clothes can be tried on, Melanson said.
“The clothes are definitely a big hit,” she said.
Despite the many exhibits, Melanson said, the museum is not yet finished; officials are continually buying more antiques (especially furniture), books and turn-of-the-century knickknacks to fill out the empty spaces. The museum also accepts donated items from private collections and charity groups, she said.
“Within the next several months, we should have the museum looking the way we really want,” Melanson said. “But we still think it produces the desired effect right now.”
The Kellogg House, with its traditional beauty, may be most responsible for creating that effect. With its burnished wood, solid construction and imaginative detailing, it recalls the beautiful craftsmanship of Victorian times. The building was owned by Hiram Clay Kellogg, a map maker and civil engineer who lived in Orange County, and given by his family to the school district in the late 1970s, Melanson said.
The house had originally been at 122 Orange St. in Santa Ana but was moved in 1981 to its current 11-acre site at 3101 W. Harvard St. The school district, which owns the land, and the nonprofit Discovery Museum of Orange County Foundation developed the museum, Melanson explained.
The museum operates on an annual budget of $250,000 to $300,000, with money coming from private contributions and county grants, said Betty Barnett, the museum’s administrative assistant. Much of the budget is earmarked for the Kellogg House restoration and the purchase of exhibits.
Barnett said the foundation’s plans extend beyond the Kellogg house and its interior. The Discovery Museum may eventually expand to include three other turn-of-the-century structures that were given to the district and foundation in 1982. An 1899 house, a carriage barn and a water tower, all donated, were moved to the back of the Harvard Street site in 1982 and may be restored for public viewing, she said.
But both Melanson and Barnett agree that the main attraction will continue to be the Kellogg House and the history it showcases.
“I guess everyone longs for the past in some way,” Melanson said. “People get excited, I think, because (the museum) lets them tap into those feelings.”
The museum does not charge an entrance fee, but donations are accepted. Call (714) 540-0404 for information.