Usually when I think of museums, its the big and famous ones that come to mind; American Museum of Natural History in New York, Art Institute in Chicago, and The Getty in Los Angeles. But the U.S. is full of terrific, small museums that aren’t normally on our radar.
Orange County, California is famous for many reasons, but museums aren’t one of them. However, this place is a perfect example of great, small museums that don’t get the attention they are due. OC has an impressive selection of museums including art, world culture, history, surfing, aviation and automotive. I’ll share with you ten of these museums that I’ve recently visited and what I enjoyed (or didn’t) about each. I’ll even feature a few free Orange County museums because they do exist. Hopefully I’ll convince you that some of these are worth a visit.
Marconi Automotive Museum
If you enjoy high performance and race cars, then this museum is for you. Dick Marconi combined his love of cars with a desire to give back to the community and created the Marconi Automotive Museum and Foundation for Kids. All proceeds from the museum benefit children’s charities. Located in an industrial area of Tustin, this warehouse contains 75 motorcycles and cars. Some of the highlights include a race car driven by Mario Andretti and a GMC Sierra customized for Oscar de la Hoya. (If you enjoy car museums, read about our trip to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.)
Tip: The Marconi is not open on weekends, only weekdays. Admission is a suggested donation of $5 per person.
I’ve spent the last month researching and visiting museums in Orange County, and I must say, the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center turned out to be my favorite experience. I’m not a surfer, and I don’t even care to go to the beach very often. However, I enjoy learning about history, and surfing is an essential part of Orange County’s past. Thanks to an enthusiastic docent, Hal, I learned much about this sport, its equipment and most importantly the cast of characters that have made it so popular. Lining the exterior museum walls are hundreds of surfboards that illustrate the development of both the board and its riders. In the center is a rotating exhibit that currently highlights female surfers. The current space is in a nondescript commercial property in San Clemente. In the near future it will move closer to the water in Dana Point. If you enjoy surfing even a little bit, then this is definitely the museum to visit.
I also visited the International Museum of Surfing in Huntington Beach, but found it disappointing. The current exhibit about surfing and skateboarding did not engage me and left me wondering about its purpose. Instead of a museum exhibit, it felt like a commercial for board manufacturers. I hope to visit again when they present a new exhibit.
Tip: The Surfing Heritage and Culture Center is free. The International Surfing Museum is $3 per person.
Lyon Air Museum
If you’ve live in Orange County then you’ve likely heard of General Lyon, a retired Army officer, home developer and philanthropist. One of his great passions is World War II history, and that’s exactly what you’ll find inside the Lyon Air Museum. Inside a large airplane hangar next to John Wayne Airport is an impressive display of WWII era planes and automobiles.
One of the most interesting, and creepy, items was the 1939 Mercedes Benz Hitler rode in as he entered a newly conquered city or country. You’ve likely seen this car in old news reels or documentaries. It has a folding front seat that was designed to allow Hitler to stand and greet crowds as he rode along the streets.
Tip: This museum is not air conditioned, so visiting on a 90 degree day like we did is not advised. Admission is $12 per person, though we purchased discount tickets through Groupon.
I’ve been to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana about a dozen times over the years and always enjoy it. It specializes in world cultures and history. There are usually a few rotating exhibits featured and of course several excellent permanent exhibits.
Currently there is a Native American exhibit which I must say was disappointing. There were no videos or other interactive features, and the low lighting made it difficult to read the informational signage.
What I most enjoyed during my recent visit was a permanent exhibit called Spirits and Headhunters: Art of the Pacific Islands. The artifacts in this exhibit come from Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. I knew little about this part of the world so everything about the exhibit intrigued me. It turns out that this was the last region of the world discovered by missionaries or explorers, so its native culture remained in tact longer than anywhere else. After decades of archeological and sociological study its now believed that the people of the Pacific Islands had very advanced navigational skills due to their understanding of birds, wind and other weather patterns--truly fascinating!
Tip: Two blocks down the street from Bowers is its sister institution, Kidseum. When my children were young we visited Kidseum many times and found it a great way to spend a few hours. Admission to the Bowers Museum is $13 for adults and admission to the Kidseum is $10.
The Art Museums
Since the Orange County Art Museum is currently closed while its new facility is being built, I did not include it in this article. Instead, I had the opportunity to visit the Laguna Beach Art Museum, Hilbert Museum of California Art, and Irvine Museum of Art. (Headed to Los Angeles? Read about two more art museums.)
The Laguna Beach Art Museum is currently celebrating its 100 Year Anniversary. The current facility is the evolution of the Laguna Beach Artists Association (LBAA) which was created to support the fledgling artist colony that settled here in the early 20th century. The current show details the development of the LBAA from its inception in 1918 until 1935. Artists from around the country settled in this area to benefit from the great weather and beautiful scenery and the result is hundreds of beautiful paintings showing us what South Orange County was like in the early 1900’s.
The Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange is a part of Chapman University and was opened just two years ago, in 2016. The museum features the collection of Mark and Janet Hilbert. Two of the current exhibitions that I really enjoyed were paintings from Disney illustrator, Eyvind Earle and cover art from the magazine, Westways. This seemingly small museum offers an impressive collection.
The Irvine Museum was my least favorite of the three art museums. The current exhibit Drawing From the Past, is a collection of drawings, pastels and watercolors from California artists, many completed while they were art students. There was very limited information provided about the exhibit or individual works. I found myself done with the entire collection in twenty minutes. However, the exhibits here rotate every four months, so I'll be back to check out future offerings.
Tip: The Hilbert and Irvine Museums are free. The Laguna Beach Art Museum charges $7 per person for admission. There is no dedicated parking lot for the Laguna Museum, so allow time to find metered parking on nearby streets.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
I’ve now had the opportunity to visit three presidential museums, and regardless of political affiliations, these offer everyone a chance to reflect on a period of American history through the eyes of its leader at the time.
I overhead a docent at the Richard Nixon Museum tell a group that the most common question he’s asked is if the museum covers Watergate. Well the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact Watergate, and all the events leading up to it, is the largest exhibit in the museum. As is typical of all presidential museums, most of the exhibits portray the leader in a positive light. However, the circumstances that lead to Nixon’s resignation are clearly articulated. This room does not understate any of the issues.
Some of the less serious exhibits include dresses from first ladies, a model of the Western White House and a helicopter used by Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. I was surprised at the size of the helicopter which could carry 16 passengers and the crew. The Nixon Library is well worth the trip to explore the life of our 37th President.
Tip: I took my daughter, Jessica, to the Ronald Reagan Library when she was in sixth grade and was assigned this president for a year end report. I would not take children any younger to a presidential museum since there are limited interactive exhibits and the reading material is high level. Most of the visitors at the Nixon Library were 50 and older.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
If you’re a California resident, then its likely your children studied California Missions in third grade. As a result, your family likely visited one of the local missions and your child built a model, wrote a report or had to make a presentation to the class. For many Californians that’s the last time we visited one of the missions.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, built in 1776, offers such beauty and history and I found myself wishing to visit more often. As I entered the first courtyard, I was met with beautiful gardens planted with butterfly friendly plants resulting in dozens of butterflies in the air.
Then I noticed all the historic buildings--the ruins of the great church, the barracks, and the bell wall. The Mission is a great way for adults and children to explore the history of Spanish colonization of California and its native populations.
My favorite place at the Mission was the Serra Chapel, and it’s adjacent St. Peregrine Chapel. This may be a small worship space, but it’s packed with beautiful artwork. And thanks to extensive renovation that has taken place over the past 100 years, these lovely chapels offer visitors space to sit and reflect.
Tip: The admission fee of $10 includes an audio tour that provides narration at 34 stations throughout the property. I highly recommend taking advantage of this, even if you don’t listen to every recording.
Free Orange County Museums
Unfortunately, there are few free Orange County museums, but I do want to highlight the three from this article that do not charge admission; Hilbert Art Museum, Irvine Museum of Art and the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center. All three also offer free parking.
Some of these museums offer free days (check their websites) and others offer discounts through sites like Groupon.
Go Visit an Orange County Museum Soon!
I took about a month to research and write this article, and it turned out to be even more fun than I anticipated. We are truly fortunate to have a wide range of museums in Orange County offering high quality exhibits and collections. It’s easy to travel halfway around the world and set aside time for museums, but when we’re at home we forget about the little gems in our own backyard. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit one soon.