California Tower Project

UPDATE: Tickets to climb the California Tower are now available!

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York City has the Empire State Building, and Seattle has the Space Needle. These iconic structures are emblems for each city, instantly recognizable as symbols of vitality, tourism, and civic, regional, and national pride. San Diego’s California Tower is unquestionably the icon of our city. A visual and cultural landmark of extraordinary historic significance, the Tower stands as an important monument to San Diego itself.

Unlike world-renowned structures such as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Space Needle, however, our Tower lacks one vital component: public access. We are currently conducting a study to determine the feasibility of reopening San Diego’s California Tower to the public. Below, please find the most frequently asked questions regarding the status of our efforts to possibly reopen the California Tower.

Frequently Asked Questions

1) When will the Tower be open?

We do not know if the Tower will ever reopen to the public. Although we would love to reopen it in time for the 2015 celebration, it is still a dream at this point. We are happy to report, however, that we are in the process of conducting a feasibility study to determine what it might take to offer guided tours of the Tower to the public someday.

2) Can I pay you to go up now? Pretty please?

No. We are sorry, but the Tower is not open to the public at this time.

3) What is it going to take to reopen the Tower?

Whether we can reopen the Tower will depend on the findings of the feasibility study, our ability to successfully collaborate with various stakeholders to overcome a wide variety of hurdles, and our ability to raise the necessary funding. However, we are convinced: where there is a collective will, there is a collective way.

4) How much more money do you need?

As of December 24, 2014, we are halfway to our goal of raising $3 million to provide for the long-term stewardship of the California Tower.

5) How can I help?

 You can help in three ways:

1) Share your thoughts on why you think the tower should be re-opened. Email us at or post to our Facebook page.

2) Check this page for new info, and sign up for email updates using the form below. And spread the word!

3) When we’re ready to start fundraising, donate! We’ll post a link here for the Tower campaign.

Cross-Cultural Connections: Unity Traditions

The Museum of Man’s photograph collection is made up of images not only from southern California, but also from countries around the world. Many of our photographs depict customs that are consistent across many cultures, including aspects of religious ceremonies, funerals, and celebrations. In documenting and archiving our photos, my favorite ones so far have been images of wedding ceremonies because they help highlight differences and similarities from cultures around the world. Matrimonial ceremonies vary greatly around the world, but many core traditions can be seen cross-culturally.

One of my favorite wedding ceremony images is a photograph by Fred Harvey showing a Navajo bride in Arizona obtaining water for the wedding feast. According to the Navajo Nation, at a traditional Diné wedding the pot and the water used in the ceremony symbolize the Mother Earth containing the Holy Water of Life. The gourd dipper used by the bride symbolizes the roots and growth of life. She pours water on the hands of the groom for the cleansing of wrongs that may have been committed - this represents the transition from individualism to a beginning of a union.

Another great collection of wedding photographs are ones that Anita Jones took of a wedding at Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca, Mexico in the 1960s. Her images include photos of the ceremony and of wedding guests piling household gifts in the center of town for the couple, before attending a feast to celebrate the union.

Even though the photographs of the Navajo ceremony appear very different from the wedding in Oaxaca, the symbolic traditions marking the couples' new lives together bridge both these cultures and many more throughout the world. For example, after doing some research I learned that some Native American weddings include a salt ceremony, where the bride passes a handful of salt to her groom without spilling any. He then passes it back to her and the exchange is repeated three times. She then performs the salt exchange with all the members of the groom's family, symbolizing her assimilation. Other Native Americans may perfrom a blanket ceremony or a fire ceremony to symbolize the union of the bride and groom.

Another example of a unity ceremony, handfasting, comes from traditional Celtic weddings. The handfasting ceremony is an ancient wedding tradition, made popular in Ireland and Scotland, that coined the term "tying the knot." For this, the officiant ties one of the bride's hands to one of the groom's; in some celebrations this symbolic  joining lasts only for the duration of the ceremony, in others, hands are joined for the entire day. The hands convey the warmth of the heart while the infinity symbol created by the rope symbolizes "forever." The wrapping of hands also symbolizes the bringing together of two lives in a marriage of strength and unity. Alternatively, the couple may simply place their hands on an "oathing stone" during their vows to "set them in stone." In Hispanic and Filipino weddings, the couple may opt to perfom what is known as the "lasso ceremony," a larger version of handfasting where the "lasso" encircles their bodies instead of just their hands. Interestingly, in Thailand the bride and groom each sit with their hands folded and linked together with a chain of flowers. Their ceremony is led by the oldest member of the family, who will dip their hands into a shell full of water to symbolize luck. After he has completed this blessing the rest of the guests will do the same thing for the couple. And in Japan, during a Buddhist ceremony, two strings of beautiful beads are woven together to symbolize the union of two into one.

A unity ceremony I hadn't heard of but found intersesting is called "broom jumping," and is an African-American tradition that has its roots in slavery times when slaves weren't allowed to marry. For this ceremony, the families place the broom on the ground and the bride and groom jump over it together. The broom can then decorate a place of honor in their home.

Another tradition I hadn't heard of is common in India and other countries with a Hindu culture; as part of the marriage ceremony the bride’s parents wash the couple’s feet with milk and water as a symbol of purifying them for the journey of their new life together.

Glass breaking, performed at the end of a ceremony before the proclamation of marriage and the kiss, is a custom in Jewish weddings. The breaking of the glass serves to remind the bride, groom, and guests that the marriage vows are intended to  be permanent - just as permanent and final as the breaking of the glass is unchangeable. 

Other popular unity traditions include: bread breaking; the lighting of a unity candle; circling; drinking from the same vessel; exchanging symbolic gifts or flowers; and a wine, water, or sand ceremony. What I really enjoyed about this research was the endless ways that people have for customizing each tradition. What's your favorite and how would you customize it?

Rosa Longacre, Project Archivist

The Sarcophagus That Went to the Getty

One of our most precious objects went on a trip this week. The Egyptian child sarcophagus lid, usually displayed in our Egypt gallery, was requested by the UCLA/Getty Conservation program for a graduate thesis project. The conservation student, Casey, will be working closely with her advisors to partially conserve, research, x-ray, and analyze the lid. She will return the lid to us in June with detailed information about its original production and clues as to whose sarcophagus this lid was meant to top.

Preparing the lid for travel was not easy and took months of preparation by our collections staff. After a few visits, several phone calls, dozens of pictures, and numerous emails we, along with key members from the UCLA/Getty team, created a plan for treatment and travel. Our very own Exhibits Technician, Ken Bordwell, built a custom crate and fitted it with an internal stretcher and foam supports for the fragile object. Casey, the student conservator, came down from L.A. to perform temporary triage on areas of the lid that were unstable. Following the treatment, we loaded the lid into the crate and drove it to the Getty Villa where their conservation lab is located. I am very happy to say that the sarcophagus lid arrived safely with no damage. 

Over the next several months Casey will be working on the lid, so be sure to check back with us to see how things progress.

Karen Lacy, Collections Manager

See the collection of photos from moving day here.

Sharing Collections and Making Connections

One of my favorite aspects of my job here at the Museum is to take a moment, walk through the rooms and look - look at not only the objects, but at the reaction a volunteer or fellow staff member has when seeing an object for the first time. Since my job keeps me in the collection storage rooms I get to experience these moments all the time, and love sharing them with people who don't. These are some of the pieces I get asked about, that are consistent conversation starters for many of us here in the Curatorial Department.

Before new interns start in Curatorial, or when we give a tour, one of the most asked questions is “do you have any weapons down here?” The answer is yes, we do... over 5,000. In this collection of weapons we have bows, arrows, swords, and knives. One of my favorites is a sword from the Gilbert Islands, which are located in the Pacific Ocean. This sword is something that I show people who ask about weapons because they are usually expecting a sword with a metal blade. This sword is actually made of koa wood, a kind of twine material, and shark teeth. There is usually the phrase “oh cool” somewhere in their reaction.

Another question I often get “what is the weirdest thing you have in the collection?” For me this is the "bread baby," also known as a Tantawawa, from Bolivia. This piece is weird to me because many poeple, including myself, don’t think of bread as being something that a museum should collect. Also, bread is not the easiest thing to preserve. Fortunately for me, there are only a handful of "bread babies" in our collection, and many were coated with a sealant before they were accessioned. 

The last piece I want to share is a Javanese mask. I like to show our mask collection to people because we have several from a variety of cultures. To the best of my knowledge, we have never put all of them together for a cross-cultural comparison, and have them simply as examples of specific cultures, art, or rituals. Masks mean different things to different cultures - they can be a way to hide identity, portray someone else, or represent some aspect of a ritual. The mask shown here was possibly used in a dance drama. It is hand-carved wood that has been painted.

Next time you see an object that strikes you as interesting, find out what it is and where it came from, just like I encourage all of my interns to do. It might have an interesting story that speaks to a culture or to an individual, and it could be a way to make a unique connection.

Karen Lacy, Collections Manager


Honoring Our Vision: New Endeavors at the Museum of Man

Everyone knows by now that at the beginning of the year we made the decision to move our long-standing, albeit somewhat physically removed, museum store to the main lobby of our building. Many factors influenced this decision, and while it has been met with mixed feelings from the public, we have seen a noticeable boost in merchandise sales since the move.

Feeling bolstered by this positive development, and already seeing representations of our building on everything from logos, to business card templates, to electrical boxes, we wanted to undertake a little bit of building-inspired merchandising. Our goal is to make a connection in people’s minds between us as an institution and the iconic building we call home.

Currently our extremely talented in-house designer, Katherine, is working on graphics for hats, magnets, key-chains, mugs, and two styles of shirts. Intrigued by the process, I asked her a couple of questions.

Shannon: Not being a store manager, were you intimidated by the prospect of the new merchandising?

Katherine: No, I like designing shirts - it’s fun! The ordering process is more intimidating because you have to find a printer who can deliver what you need, and you might be thinking of something really cool or innovative that they can’t accommodate. For example, one of our new shirt designs has the graphic printed in an unconventional location, so I had to find a printer that could make that happen.

Shannon: How did you pick items to sell? 

Katherine: I got lots of input from our admissions and sales staff. They know best what visitors are asking for and what they’ll buy. They also know what works best for us, and what has been less successful in the past. In the final stages of choosing what to actually take on, I gave lots of consideration to the size and weight of items, since so many visitors are traveling and have to pack everything to take home. Of course, I also had to consider quantities and price point for us, and what that would translate into as the price for customers - bulk buying is not always the best option! (laughs)

Shannon: What’s the general process - how do you actually go about getting this stuff into the store, especially if you’re not in the business of firing up a kiln or hopping on a sewing machine? 

Katherine: You start off by brainstorming what you’d really like to sell and researching what similar establishments are carrying. You check out what styles and designs they’re selling the most of, and what products those are on. When you have your own designs created, you find a printer with “blanks” on hand that fit your vision. After you get their specs, you send them your files and give them quantity numbers.

Shannon: How do you make sure you don’t get stuck with a bunch of stuff that doesn’t sell? How do you “test the waters?”

Katherine: I think “What would I buy?” I don’t collect knick-knacks or souvenirs, so I wanted to design things that would appeal to me if I was visiting a museum. Since our space is limited, the things we’re designing have to be strategically chosen and designed well, so they don’t sit around for a long time. We did some public polls at the admissions desk, and the feedback we got showed that everyone has different taste, so a little variety is important, but we have to be careful not to stretch ourselves too thin, either.

Shannon: If you could design and sell anything, and cost wasn’t an issue, what would it be?

Katherine: I have two options:

1) I am currently on the board of AIGA San Diego, a professional association for designers, and right now we're working on an exciting new exhibit called Bowhaus. 50 artists, designers, sculptors, architects, and woodworkers will have the opportunity to design and build one-of-kind doghouses which will be sold at a public auction at the conclusion of the exhibit. Proceeds will benefit AIGA youth art outreach programming and Paws'itive Teams, a non-profit organization providing service dogs for persons with disabilities. 

This week I was chosen as a contributing artist. My dog house concept is based off of the Museum of Man's California Building and features the iconic dome, tower, and blue entry doors. I am calling my dog house "Man's Best Friend." After this event, I would love to make a Museum of Man dog house kit to be sold in our museum store. 

2) An umbrella with our dome printed on it, like completely wrapped around. I just think the concept is so cool. It’s always very rewarding when you find some piece of simple merchandise, that you can transform and give a completely custom feel.

San Diego Museum of Man Tower Photo Contest

Our vision is be San Diego's dynamic place to go to learn about each other, reflect on our place in the world, and build a better community. To honor this, SDMoM would like to announce its very first Tower Photo Contest!

Do you fly frequently and see the Tower as a “welcome home” beacon? Do the resonant chimes elicit fond memories with a loved one? Do you find comfort in the solid presence of this iconic, 100-year-old structure? Take a photo of the Tower that conveys something about you or an experience you’ve had and share it with us and your fellow San Diegans.

How to Enter

Submit your photograph online HERE between August 30, 2012 and December 31, 2012, at 11:59 PM Pacific Time (UTC-8:00).

Follow the instructions and complete a separate entry form for each photo submitted. Photographs must be in a .jpeg, or .jpg format. A final print resolution of at least 300 dpi is recommended. 

All contact information will be kept private and separate from your submitted photograph. No submissions will be accepted through the mail or through any means other than the on-line submission through SDMoM website.


The 5 most creative photos will receive free membership for a year to SDMoM so they can enjoy exhibits, programs, and special events all year long. Winners also will have their photographs featured on this webpage, on social media, and in the SDMoM Member Newsletter. 


Judging will be conducted by a panel of local photographic and artistic professionals. Winning contestants and selected finalists will be announced on the SDMoM website and social media, and contacted via e-mail. Please do not contact us about the status of entries. This contest is void where prohibited or restricted by law. SDMoM reserves the right to cancel the contest or modify these rules at its discretion. Winners are responsible for paying any taxes they may owe on a prize. Decisions of SDMoM are final.


By submitting an entry, each contestant agrees to the rules of the contest.

A model release (click here for the form) must be secured for any recognizable person. Photographs that infringe on copyright or another’s personal rights are not eligible. Photographs that have won any prizes in any other contests are not eligible. SDMoM will determine winners’ eligibility.

All contestants grant SDMoM a fully paid up, royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, non-exclusive license to use, display, distribute, reproduce and create derivative works of the entries, in whole or in part, in any media now existing or subsequently developed, for any educational, promotional, publicity, exhibition, archival, scholarly and all other standard SDMoM purposes (collectively “Materials”). Any photograph reproduced will include a photographer credit as feasible. The Museum of Man will not be required to pay any additional consideration or seek any additional approval in connection with such uses.

All contestants agree that they are not entitled to any compensation or any other thing for the SDMoM’s use or disposition of the Materials.

All contestants agree to release SDMoM from any and all liability arising from or related to the development, production, distribution, sale, license, use or other disposition of the Materials.

All contestants represent to SDMoM that any photograph submitted is their original work product and that no other third party has any claims to such photograph and hereby release and discharge SDMoM and any of its affiliates, and their respective employees, agents, licensees, successors and assigns from any and all claims, demands or causes of actions that they have or may have in the future for libel, defamation, invasion of privacy, or right of publicity, infringement of copyright or trademark, or violation of any other right arising out of or relating to any utilization of the rights granted under the contest rules.

Meet Meylia!

Meylia Pflaum has recently joined the San Diego Museum of Man as the Assistant Archivist for our CLIR photo cataloging project, Capturing History: Cataloging the San Diego Museum of Man’s Photographic Collection.  She comes to us from the University of San Diego with a BA in Anthropology.  We are very excited to have Meylia as a member of the Collections Department, as she has already proven to be a great part of our team.  In order to help you all get to know her a bit better, here are a few fun questions we asked her to answer.  

US:  We understand that you were raised here in San Diego.  What made San Diego a great place to grow up?

MEYLIA:  I like that it is a city that has it all, both in terms of the city and the landscape.  There is really easy access to both the desert and the ocean.

US:  What do you like the best at working at the San Diego Museum of Man?

MEYLIA:  I like the people that work here.

US:  Thus far, what is your favorite photo that you have seen during your work on Capturing History?

MEYLIA: The bathing beauties!

US: How did you first get interested in Anthropology?

MEYLIA:  During my freshman year at CSU San Marcos, there was a core requirement class about cultural anthropology.  We watched a video depicting anthropologists making first contact with an isolated culture.  It just hooked me.  I had never thought about those types of interactions between such different cultures before.

US:  What is the best part of the Capturing History project?

MEYLIA:  I think it is the sense of accomplishment.  I feel good when I finish cataloging a group of photos.  Plus I get to see really cool images!

US:  Ok, what is the worst part?

MEYLIA:  Working out all the kinks in the technological aspects of the project.

US:  Finally, sum yourself up in one word.

MEYLIA:  Quirky!

Journey of an Axe

For many objects at the San Diego Museum of Man, life as a part of our Ethnographic Collections is only the latest step in an already fascinating journey. One such object is one of our most recent acquisitions, a New Caledonian Ceremonial Axe. This item was donated to SDMoM by Libby Hurlich in memory of her brother, Harold N. Ellison.  

Harold acquired the axe during his stay on the island of New Caledonia during World War II. An expert in water management, Harold was often sent ahead of the US military to prepare new locations for military facilities. It was during one such trip to New Caledonia in 1942 when Harold received quite the surprise: Japanese forces had arrived on the island and begun an occupation! Harold, with the help of local New Caledonians, retreated safely into the mountains and went into hiding. He spent months evading capture by the Japanese, all the while receiving food and aid from local villagers. Eventually, the United States military forces were able to free New Caledonia from the occupying Japanese and establish their own presence on the island, thus allowing a very relieved Harold to come out from hiding and fulfill his original purpose.  

Harold was immensely grateful to the local New Caledonians who had kept him alive and safe, so much so that he stayed on the island well after he had finished establishing the new US base. He taught the local villagers about water use, conservation, and reclamation in order to thank them for all they had done. Finally, in 1945, it was time for Harold to return home. The New Caledonians were so thankful for all that he taught them that they presented him with an item of great esteem, a Ceremonial Axe. The Axe came home with him and stayed in the family until 2012 when it came to us at SDMoM, a reminder of the many, and often surprising, ways that different cultures connect.

-Megan Clancy, Registrar

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo!

Since Cinco de Mayo is here, I decided to learn a little more about this holiday and thought that I would share it with you.  Cinco de Mayo, or the 5th of May, is a holiday to celebrate the 1892 victory of the Mexican army over the French in the Battle of Puebla.  This battle was one of many during the Franco-Mexican war lasting from 1861 to 1867.  In the United States Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture. 

Over the years people have donated their objects to our collections, and the Museum has made numerous trips to Mexico, bringing back amazing pieces for exhibition and research. To celebrate Cinco de Mayo here at the San Diego Museum of Man, I would like to explore our collections and share some treasures from Mexico that we have in our care.  Please enjoy some images of our amazing collections!

The black and white bowl pictured here is from our extensive Mata Ortiz pottery collection.  This beautiful style of pottery originates from the village Mata Ortiz, located in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.  Led by Juan Quezada, this art form has become a unique blend of traditional techniques with modern styles.

This colorful diorama was purchased in Mexico City and later donated to the Museum.  The hand-modeled scene depicts two male devils and one female devil with shelves of plates and cups on the back wall.  In front, there is a mano and metate, a comal over a fire, with twelve ears of corn hanging on roof supports. The blue female devil is making tortillas while the seated black male devil is cooking tortillas, and red male devil is eating the tortillas.

This seated male figure from the west coast of Mexico is estimated to date back to between 200 BC and 100 AD, and is newly acquired, thanks to a generous donation from Dr. Geoffrey Smith.  

Here are links for a few Cinco de Mayo celebrations near San Diego!


Karen Lacy, Collections Manager