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When thinking of things to do in Orange County, museums may not be at the top of your list. Instead, you’re thinking of great beaches and theme parks. I love the beauty of our beaches, and adore the Magic Kingdom, but I also appreciate OC museums, and hope you’ll add them to your to-do list whether you live here or plan to visit.
Most of our museums are small and tend to focus on a niche collection like California painting or surfing. The benefit is that all of these museums offer fun things to do in Orange County in a short amount of time. These don’t require a major commitment of time--or money--but can be added spontaneously to a free weekend, or supplement other activities during a vacation.
For this article I’ve focused on what’s new; either new exhibits or even recently re-opened museums. Over the next six months there are plenty of excellent exhibits to see, so I hope you’ll set aside time this Spring and Summer to explore them.
I’ve been visiting the Bowers Museum--located in Santa Ana--for many years and never tire of it. Its collections focus on world cultures and history, and there are always exceptional special exhibits in addition to a strong permanent collection.
The current special exhibit features the creations of Chinese haute couture designer, Guo Pei, best known in the U.S. for Rihanna’s yellow cape at the 2015 Met Gala. In addition to the displays of actual fashions, the exhibit includes several video screens of models wearing the designs on the catwalk. I appreciated seeing these creations as they appear on a real person, but then being able to lean-in and admire the exquisite detail. Guo’s dresses are often detailed with Swarovski crystals, gold or silver thread, embroidery, and elaborate folds. Some of her creations take as long as two years to complete!
Looking for more to do in Orange County?
Here are additional Orange County Museums To Visit.
Many of Guo’s creations have historical and even architectural inspiration, such as a gown influenced by the Arabian Nights or another one that alludes to the dome of the cathedral in Saint Gallen. This is by no means a typical fashion exhibit, but instead, these are artworks that happen to be made in the form of clothing.
Guo Pei: Beyond Couture will run through July 14 and is included in the cost of General Admission which ranges from $10 to $13. There are several other exhibits currently on view including my personal favorite, Spirits and Headhunters: Art of the Pacific Islands.
Tip: Tangata Restaurant, part of the famed Patina Group, is located in the Bowers Museum and offers delicious food in a lovely setting. Reservations are recommended.
It’s not everyday you get a tour of a museum from its founder, but that’s one of the benefits of visiting the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Old Towne Orange. Every Thursday morning at 11:00 a.m., founder, Mark Hilbert, or museum director, Mary Platt give a one hour tour of this small museum located on the campus of Chapman University.
Much of the collection here is focused on California Scene painting which is a genre that developed early in the 19th Century and captures this period of the state’s history. Until my visits of this and the Laguna Beach Art Museum last year, I wasn’t familiar with this genre, but since then have really developed an appreciation for it. Visitors who live in the California area will recognize scenes from downtown Los Angeles, San Francisco, or many of the state’s beach towns.
Around the time of the Great Depression, many artists in the U.S. relocated to the Los Angeles area hoping for employment with one of the studios, most notably Disney. As a result, during this period L.A. was home to more artists than any other city in the world. I can’t believe I didn’t know this until my tour of the Hilbert Museum!
Currently, the Hilbert is also showing artwork by Disney illustrator, Mary Blair, and an exhibit about Norman Rockwell.
It’s not easy to find free museums in Orange County, but the Hilbert is one of them. In addition the parking and the weekly tours are also free.
Tip: Loaded with great restaurants, boutiques and antique shops, Old Towne Orange is a delightful place to spend the day after a visit to the Hilbert Museum.
Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center
I just learned that the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center, or SHACC, is the largest surfing museum in the world! No other museum can compete with their collection of 800 boards. While not all displayed at one time, there is always a nice assortment of vintage boards along with a sampling of boards from champion surfers.
The exterior walls of the museum feature an ongoing exhibit displaying the evolution of boards and the careers of famous U.S. surfers. In the middle is a rotating exhibit focused on topics like women in surfing or the history of the sport from around the world. Later this month a new exhibit called “Go Faster” will open examining the contributions of competitive surfers and board shapers.
What I want to emphasize is that this museum is not just for surfers--though I’m confident they will enjoy it too. Instead, this is an overview of a sport that has been central to Southern California’s history. From movies to clothing, surfing has impacted life in SoCal in many ways.
To make it even better, SHACC is also one of the free museums in Orange County. Its location in a business park in San Clemente is a bit unusual, but eventually this museum will move to Dana Harbor.
Tip: If a docent is available during your visit, be sure to take a tour with them. The docents are surfers themselves, and may have personal stories to share about the exhibits at the SHACC.
Laguna Art Museum
The Laguna Art Museum definitely wins the award for the best location of any museum in Orange County, and possibly the state. After viewing the exhibits, be sure to enjoy a stroll through nearby Heisler Park with its excellent ocean views.
While I had enjoyed the permanent collection during my last visit, this time I focused on the two special exhibits; Titi, Nunu, and Klembolo: Helena Modjeska’s Fairy Tale Book and Self-Help Graphics. The first is a hand written and illustrated book by the famous Shakespearean actress, Madame Modjeska. The second is a selection of prints from an East Los Angeles printmaking workshop featuring Chicano artists.
Both exhibits are worth the visit. The Fairy Tale book was written and illustrated by hand for Modjeska’s grandson, Felix. The tiny illustrations are highly detailed and show how much love went into this creation.
After the museum, check-out What To Do In Laguna Beach.
Visiting Orange County in the summer? Read
The Self-Help Graphics prints are boldly colored and often address social issues. Over the next few months the museum will host a variety of speakers from this studio talking about the exhibit.
The Laguna Art Museum admission ranges from $5-$7 per person and offers free admission on the first Thursday of the month from 5 p.m. to closing.
Tip: Enjoy a walk with ocean views after a museum visit, or if you’re hungry, pop in to Las Brisas for a meal with a view.
Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center
I recently made my first visit to Muzeo, located in Anaheim, and I will definitely be back. There are two portions to this museum; the free galleries and the special exhibit for which there is an admission charge.
I was especially interested in the special exhibit, Papel Chicano Dos; Works on Paper From the Collection of Cheech Marin. Yes, the comedian who is popularly known as half of Cheech and Chong. It turns out he’s been collecting art for years, and in fact owns the largest private collection of Chicano art in the world.
In this current exhibit there are 65 artworks by 24 artists, both emerging and established. The techniques include watercolor, aquatint, paste and mixed media. What I appreciate about Chicano art are the bold colors and often intense themes. These artworks don't fade into the background, but instead command your attention.
Papel Chicano Dos has been touring the U.S. and will be in Anaheim until July 14, 2019. Admission ranges from $7 to $11.
Tip: Just 5 minutes away is the Anaheim Packing District, a food hall located in three historic buildings. There are plenty of cuisine options here from Indian to Mexican and Italian to Vietnamese.
Orange County Museum of Art
Orange County Museum of Art has been around since 1962, but last year announced a significant expansion and new home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts that will open in 2021. It was closed briefly last year while it moved to its temporary location in Santa Ana which opened in April of this year. There is both a drawing and model of the future space which will be significantly larger than the previous one and a nice addition to all the performing arts found on the Segerstrom campus.
The temporary space may be small, but it currently includes seven exhibits ranging from glass art to photography and small sculptures from the permanent collection. My personal favorite is the special exhibit by Hiromi Takizawa that uses glass to represent scenes from nature like a forest, lichen and rocks. I’ve always been a fan of glass art, and found Takizawa’s pieces subtly beautiful.
In its future space, the OCMA will charge admission, but the temporary space is free of charge.
Tip: This museum is across the street from the best shopping center in Orange County, South Coast Plaza. Set aside a day for shopping, dining and museum viewing and you won’t regret it.