San Diego’s Vision, 1915

In 1915, San Diego celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal with a world’s fair—the Panama-California Exposition—to showcase the arts and sciences and to promote the progress and promise of San Diego. The California Building, with its magnificent 200-foot tower and dome, was the fair’s jewel and the perfect setting for the ambitious anthropology exhibits held within—an impressive home for what would become the San Diego Museum of Man.

Visitors experienced the most comprehensive exhibition about the human species that had ever been assembled: The Story of Man Through the Ages. This exhibit promoted anthropology as a science while forming the nucleus of a permanent museum with collections of lasting scientific value.

The Exposition and the Core Collection, 1915-1916

Most Exposition visitors experienced their first look at the world of anthropology—the study of humankind. The collection combined both the biological and cultural development of humankind with themes that included the human migration to the Americas from Siberia, the evidence that cultures in the Americas had developed independently from the rest of the world, and the grandeur of Mayan monuments.

Among the 5,000 objects gathered by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and several Southwestern universities were pottery from the Southwest, ethnographic objects from California, human skeletal material from Peru, and casts of fossils showing human evolution. The Museum’s main gallery featured casts of Maya stelae and monuments from Quiriguá, Guatemala. The Anthropology Hall (now Evernham Hall) housed an art exhibit from France.

A newly established San Diego Museum Association received ownership of the exhibition’s objects in 1916.

The Formative Years—A General Museum, 1917-1929

After the Exposition, the San Diego Museum became a center for anthropology, history, and art. San Diegans were eager to help, and many loaned private collections. Joseph Jessop provided some 5,000 weapons he had collected from around the world. Under the patronage of Ellen Browning Scripps, the Egypt Exploration Society donated important Amarna antiquities for over a dozen years. The Scientific Library received collections of rare books and an important bequest from W. W. Whitney, which continues to fund many books and journals.

Besides the complex around the California Plaza, the Museum now also included the Science of Man Building (the current site of the Sculpture Garden), the Indian Arts Building (now the Art Institute and the Mingei International Museum), and the Painted Desert (where the Zoo parking lot is today). During the 1920s, Museum admission was free, and 30,000 visitors climbed the Tower each year.

The Challenging Years, 1930-1950

The Great Depression, World War II, and post-war recovery were difficult years. In 1926, the City of San Diego assumed upkeep of the Museum, but funds were scarce. The Museum continued to build its collections, especially through the work of pioneer archaeologist Malcolm J. Rogers. Grants from the Smithsonian and Carnegie institutions underwrote archaeological fieldwork. In 1942, the Museum changed its name to the San Diego Museum of Man, as other museums on fine arts, history, and natural history had opened in San Diego.

World War II brought the Navy into Balboa Park. The Museum’s main gallery was decked across the balconies to provide room for hospital beds. Exhibit cases were stored, and collections were packed into large barrels. The Navy later paid for some restorations, but getting the Museum reopened was a huge undertaking.

Renaissance, 1951-1971

Facing a mid-century crossroads, the Museum departed its traditional path to move toward a new way of interacting with its public. Managing Director Clark Evernham enlisted community support in revitalizing exhibits. He presented the first bilingual labels, the first “take-away” gallery guides, and the first countywide traveling exhibits for libraries. Hundreds of volunteers gave their time and expertise in building exhibits, cleaning artifacts, and doing office work. A large donation of folk art from the Mexican government in 1953 provided for many exhibits on Mexican culture. ¡Viva México!, the most ambitious, showcased costumes gathered by Anita Jones of Oaxaca. This began a relationship with the Museum that continued until her death in 2005.

In 1966, the Museum’s Board of Trustees focused its collecting policy on “Man in the Western Americas,” including western North America, Mexico and Central America, and the west coast of South America.

Growth and Outreach, 1972-1980

The Collectors Club was organized in 1973. It began with 49 members, each contributing $100 for the purchase of ethnographic materials for the collections. Their first purchase was a group of three Inuit ivory carvings from Alaska.

In 1974, the Jessop Family formally transferred the ownership of the Jessop Weapon Collection to the Museum. Other major accessions of the period included the Wenner-Gren Collection of hominid casts (1973-74), the Playboy Enterprises donation of 12 life-size figures made for the film The Naked Ape (1975), the Carl Harkleroad Collection of Southern California Indian pottery and wooden implements (1976), the Gage Skinner Collection of South American ethnographic items, and the Joseph Haber Collection of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican antiquities (1979-1980). Also in 1980, the Sheriff’s Department brought the “Lemon Grove Mummy” for study; it has been on display since that time.

Expansion and Vision, 1981-Present

Extensive additions to the Museum’s holdings included an important physical anthropology collection, a large collection of katsinas (Hopi woodcarvings of spirit beings and messengers to the Hopi deities), a rare basket collection, Moche pottery, Southwestern jewelry and rugs, three fine collections of Egyptian antiquities, Oaxacan Indian costumes, the beginning of an important Seri woodcarving assemblage, and the Mata Ortiz collection showing the artistry of Juan Quezada. A National Science Foundation grant improved artifact accessibility and storage.

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required that all US museums receiving federal funds compile inventories of human remains, grave objects, and ceremonial materials by 1995. This requirement entailed one of the largest curatorial endeavors in the Museum’s history. The curators reviewed the records of all US collections, their relevance under NAGPRA, their documentation, and tribal affiliations. This process was the first step in the repatriation of certain cultural objects to Native American and Hawaiian tribal groups.