SANTA ANA : Opening a Window to the Pacific Rim

In Veracruz, Mexico, more than 1,000 years ago, an unknown sculptor crafted a fearsome spectacle in ceramics, the statue of a grimacing seated priest wearing only the skin of a sacrifice victim, and with a human skull resting on his right palm.

Today, that statue is part of a pre-Columbian art exhibit that Bowers Museum officials hope will open a window to the past and help people today better understand their ancestors.

The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art boasts 70,000 works of pre-Columbian, African and Pacific Rim art, but before the public gets a glimpse of any of them, the artworks must be individually catalogued on computer and prepared for display, said museum curator Armand Labbe.

A staff of seven has worked for the past year to get the exhibits ready for the opening next fall of the 62,000-square-foot museum. Labbe said the museum’s exhibits will be a “potent educational force” and offer “a window from Orange County to a larger world, particularly the works of the Pacific Rim.”


When the museum opens to the public, visitors will behold rare treasures, including sculptures, paintings and artifacts that date back 2,500 years. About 2,000 of the 70,000 pieces will be on display at a time, but the frequently changing exhibits will allow visitors a fresh look each time they return to the museum at 2002 N. Main St.

One pre-Columbian piece of art that Labbe said would probably generate interest depicts a crowned female ingesting a hallucinogenic flower before her own sacrifice. By tradition, such human sacrifices were treated as royalty for one year before they were to die. Other pieces that should prove popular include figurines used in initiation ceremonies in West Africa that depict the original man and woman.

Other exhibits will be devoted to Asia and Micronesia, the arts of native Americans and the history of Orange County, Labbe added.

Labbe said the museum is taking the utmost care in preserving the works. The building has been climate-controlled at 67 degrees and 55% humidity to deter insects and otherwise protect the delicate works of gold, stone and textiles that will go on display. Safety netting surrounds the treasures to protect them from earthquakes.


The heart of the museum’s computer catalogue system is a program that stores virtually limitless information about individual pieces of art, Labbe said. The program, called “Argus” after the vigilant 1,000-eyed beast of Greek mythology, tracks the pieces.

The system is linked to 33 museums nationwide. After the works are catalogued, researchers at any of them will be able to call up the information and print a copy of a photo at the push of a button, saving wear and tear on the original pieces.

The museum is privately run, although the city owns the land and contributes a sizable portion of its $3-million annual operating costs. Labbe said that over the next 15 years, the museum would be “slowly weaned” from the city as it becomes more self-sufficient through its gift shop, artifact-lending programs and donations.