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San Diego, California

San Diego Museum of Man

An extraordinarily ornate museum in San Diego holds wondrous anthropological treasures. 

The inauguration of the Panama Canal was a very big to-do in 1915, and one of the attractions of the related Panama-California Exposition was the opening of the San Diego Museum of Man. 

It wasn’t a museum at first. It started out as The California Building, housing a central exhibit of the expo, headed by archaeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett. The exhibit, called “The Story of Man through the Ages,” was so popular that a group of citizens decided they would like to make the collection permanent fixture, and formed the San Diego Museum Association and invited Dr. Hewett to act as the director of was was, by 1942, officially an anthropological museum. 

Part of the the “California Quadrangle,” the building that houses the museum is a brilliantly ornate, almost church-like structure with a beautiful 200-ft. tall tower containing an electronic carillon and chiming clock. The tower would be recognizable to film buffs as part of the Xanadu estate in Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. It closed to the public in 1935 and reopened 80 years later after a restoration.

Besides housing several interesting and unique temporary exhibits with subjects that cover everything from 10,000 years of beer-brewing history to “Cannibals: Myth & Reality,” the museum is known for its impressive collection of Ancient Egyptian antiquities, one of the most extensive in the U.S.

This remarkable display includes a Ptolemaic child’s coffin, one of only 6 in existence, and several authentic mummies, including the Lemon Grove Mummy—a female cadaver stumbled upon in a nearby suburban garage after being found in a cave in Mexico and stashed there by two teenagers. 

The museum is located in Balboa Park, and holds several annual special events and educational opportunities. It is the only anthropological museum in the city of San Diego.