Ancient Rome in Disney central

Times Staff Writer

Walk the district that Anaheim is trying to revitalize as a downtown “urban village” with honest-to-goodness street life and you’ll see the usual suspects: Mickey, Minnie and Goofy, on posters in the windows of a low-slung office building that houses the travel and reservations operation for Disneyland, less than two miles away.

But turn the corner and you’re seized by the austere, curly-bearded, marble visage of the Roman emperor Hadrian, on a poster three stories high. If the Mouse can be upstaged on its home turf, maybe Anaheim’s cosmos is not such a small world, after all.

Today, the city of about 330,000, known for its fun-and-games attractions, will roll out its first major cultural facility, an unorthodox, multipurpose exhibition hall called Muzeo. Its opening show is “Imperial Rome: Discovering the Ancient Civilization,” 450 artworks and artifacts, including Hadrian’s bust, a lean and hungry-looking Caligula, a doughy, double-chinned Nero, and such stars of mythology as Hercules, Eros and Jupiter.

But don’t expect a steady diet of antiquities from the new institution. Instead of having a single identity -- art museum, science museum, historical collection or natural history museum -- Muzeo constantly will change. Opening Jan. 26 is a Chicano art exhibition featuring canvases and works on paper from the collection of comedian Cheech Marin. Also in the offing: “Inside Africa,” a cultural and historical show due next fall, and, in 2010, “Frogs: A Chorus of Colors.”

Museum Director Joyce Franklin, her portfolio and resources vastly increased from her previous 10 years as director of the Anaheim Museum, will book three shows each year for three-month runs -- all exhibitions that originate elsewhere. To minimize costs, Muzeo is eschewing such typical -- some would say fundamental -- museum functions as building and maintaining a collection and keeping a staff of curators to plan exhibits and do scholarly research.


Muzeo’s niche will be showing touring attractions that otherwise wouldn’t play in Southern California, said Executive Director Peter Comiskey, a former science museum director from Australia. With shrewd selections from the menu of possibilities, he added, “we can ensure that we have the best of the best to curate and develop exhibitions for us.”

“Imperial Rome,” which Comiskey said is costing about $500,000 to present, has been seen at natural history museums in Atlanta and Houston. It’s organized by Contemporanea Exhibitions, an Italian company that borrowed works from a dozen museums in Italy and Germany.

The 20,000-square-foot Muzeo encompasses Carnegie Library, a 1908 historic building that’s been newly renovated, and the ground floor of an adjacent four-story apartment building. Aiming to establish a people-magnet for its downtown, Anaheim has invested $5.7 million for construction and renovation, plus a $1-million loan for operations.

But long-term prospects for the nonprofit Muzeo depend on its ability to draw paying crowds -- city officials want at least 40,000 admissions a year -- while building a solid donor base.

Comiskey said that Muzeo has secured $1.9 million in gifts over the last 12 months.

Reflecting its humbler roots as a local museum, Muzeo has dedicated a room in its older building to a permanent exhibition on Anaheim and northern Orange County.

In another homespun touch, Muzeo will rely on volunteer expertise for lecture series and other educational extras often provided elsewhere by curators and in-house teachers. Comiskey is confident that art professors, historians and other experts will step up to share their passions. He has recruited hobbyists who reenact Roman military maneuvers in the full regalia of centurions and legionnaires; plans are in the works for a martial demonstration on Muzeo’s two ample outdoor plazas, as well as the installation of a non-firing replica of a catapult.

Muzeo is not banking on the tourist hordes who flock to Disneyland. Mainly, it plans to draw Southern Californians. Admission is $12.95, with discounts for seniors, children and large groups.

Comiskey hopes to find sponsors to underwrite regular hours in which admission would be free.

The founders note that rather than a misspelling of the Spanish “museo,” the institution’s name is in Esperanto, the international language -- chosen to signify a museum with universal interests.


‘Imperial Rome’

Where: Muzeo, 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Ends: Jan. 7, 2008

Price: $9.95 to $12.95

Contact: (714) 956-8936 or