HERITAGE WATCH : Boom--or Bust?

It's ironic, if not downright insensitive, that the newly renovated Bowers Museum in Santa Ana--a museum dedicated to the indigenous art of the region--soon will have a bust of Christopher Columbus prominently displayed in one of its cloisters. Columbus, though revered as America's discoverer and honored by a national holiday (Oct. 12), no longer has the untarnished reputation of a hero, especially among American Indians. Indeed, from the distance of 500 years, some historians suggest Columbus has begun to look more like an opportunist than a visionary.

Bowers, which will reopen Oct. 15 after a four-year face lift, agreed to display the bust of Columbus on accepting $250,000 from the Orange County American Italian Renaissance Foundation.

That's not the largest gift the museum has received, but it's hefty enough to demand respect. In return, the foundation wanted, and got, a site for its members to meet and a special place for the likeness of Columbus, sculpted by New Jersey artist Domenico Mazzone based on a description of Columbus by his son, Ferdinand.

Bowers spokesman Brian E. Langston was philosophical about the controversy over the Columbus bust taking its place among the artifacts of the civilization that well preceded the discoverer in the Americas. "If it provokes people to talk about these issues, irony can move to constructive paradox, don't you think?" he asked.

It well might. Certainly that's the kind of discourse that Bowers, now more than ever, should be dedicated to providing a forum for.

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