Review: Bowers Museum, ‘Weird and Wonderful’ exhibition

‘Weird and Wonderful’, celebrating 75 years of collecting at Bowers Museum

Touted as an ‘opportunity for people to get a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse’ of the renowned 130,000 piece Bowers Museum collection, the virtue of the ‘Weird and Wonderful’ exhibition lies in the breadth of items on display. With no discernible narrative at work, ‘Weird and Wonderful’ is instead a romp through an eclectic array of items ranging from Qing Dynasty robes, Ecuadorian shrunken heads, Modern American plein air painting and 18th century statues of saints. As fascinating as these individual items are, the true exhibit is perhaps the image it paints of curatorial practices and the definitions of history and art over the last 75 years.

The exhibition is divided into selections from the Bowers’ collections of Photography, Historical & Decorative Arts, American Fine Art, and art and artifacts from Mesoamerica, Pacific Islands, Indonesia, Africa, China, Tibet and Japan. Housed in four adjoining areas of the temporary exhibits wing, the groupings that arise are in themselves surprising. One display case alone in the Historical and Decorative Arts section contains an enormous blue Topaz from Brazil, a cigarette box that was a gift from Saudi King Faisal to Dr Henry Kissinger, a gold Jordanian elephant hair bracelet, a 20th century ivory sphere from China comprised of 15 progressively smaller spheres carved out of a single piece of ivory, and a photo of Claire Doret– the West coast’s first dental technician–laid alongside a replica of King Tut that she carved using her dental tools.

Local history buffs may be interested in the Orange County artifacts, including the lock and key of the first Orange County jail, theatre costumes of Orange County ‘treasure’ and world famous actress Madame Modjeska, or the bear trap used to catch the last grizzly in O.C. (including a photo of said bear). Anthropologists may enjoy the opportunity to compare different funerary practices, a perhaps unintended consequence of the presentation of examples of sarcophagi and tomb relics from various corners of the world, while craft enthusiasts are treated to basketry, textiles, jewelry and carvings spanning the history of humanity. Anyone with an inquisitive mind and a desire to dazzle dinner guests will discover plenty of new material on the plaques beside the items, including a detailed description of the process of Ecuadorian head shrinking.

When reviewing an exhibition such as this, it is tempting to cast a kind of meta-analysis over the entire exhibition. One could take the taunting U.S. Navy recruitment poster, African animal skin shields and South American battle trophies and theorize on our species’ natural predilection for war, as easily as one could look upon the Papua new Guinean dance masks, Tibetan skull cups and the emu feather shoes ‘used to carry out ritual killings from Western Australia’ that attest to our desire for ritual and sacrifice. You could draw new conclusions based on juxtapositions of objects and wonder about the curatorial intentions behind the placement of different, seemingly disparate objects, or, you could just enjoy the show.

‘Weird and Wonderful’, celebrating 75 years of collecting at Bowers Museum is open until Sunday, November 30, 2010. Visit http://www.bowers.org for location, admission prices and opening hours, or telephone 714 567 3600.

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