Housed within the California Quadrangle, a collection of buildings famously recognizable as Citizen Kane‘s Xanadu, the San Diego Museum of Man is a destination for anyone interested in anthropology who finds themselves in the city. Here you’ll find artifacts from pre- and ancient history, with sites of origin as nearby as right around the corner and as distant as the Nile Delta. The museum is home to roughly equal parts permanent and temporary exhibits, with most found on the two floors of the California Building and special featured displays across the street in Evernham Hall.
Though by no means containing the oldest artifacts, the Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth exhibit in the rotunda gallery predates even the museum itself. The centerpiece of the collection are a series of huge monuments, known as stelae, erected to glorify Mayan monarchs some 1,500 years ago. The originals still stand in the Mesoamerican rainforest—what you see here are casts created by intrepid archeologist Edgar L. Hewett for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. In a way, Hewett’s casts are even better than the real thing, since the actual monuments have since eroded even further over the past hundred years. And there’s more—tear your eyes away from the stelae and you’ll find Mayan pottery, masks, and sculpture, all set against a 42-foot mural of the ancient rain forest.
Upstairs you’ll find one of the most important collections of Egyptian antiquities in the United States. Found in the city of Amarna, hometown of Nefertiti and King Tut, there’s not only the usual assortment of jewelry and hieroglyphic carvings, but also two genuine human mummies and a mummified falcon. Perhaps most noteworthy is a child’s coffin from the Ptolomaic era, one of only seven known to still exist. Adjacent to the main exhibit is Adventure Kids in Egypt, a hands-on display that teaches the museum’s younger visitors about both archeology and Ancient Egyptian culture. There’s an indoor dig box, Egyptian costumes to try on, and a life-size sarcophagus puzzle.
Another exhibit focuses on the native Kumeyaay people who first settled the San Diego area. Visitors learn about the arts of basket-weaving and pottery, as well as traditional food, clothing, medicine and ceremonies.
The entire west wing is devoted to an exhibit of physical anthropology, entitled Footsteps Through Time: Four Million Years of Human Evolution. On display are the skeletons of several species of non-human primates, as well as reconstructions of prehistoric hominids from Lucy to the Neanderthal. The Time Tunnel is a large-scale timeline allowing you to visualize the progress of human technological achievement, culminating in a display that speculates in what ways the people of the distant future will differ from ourselves.
The rotating exhibits are perhaps even more fascinating than those which are always here, often focusing on a particular niche of human culture or development. Past and present displays include such topics as Native American skateboarding culture, anthropological photography, female artisan cooperatives, the history of beer and the terrifying Instruments of Torture exhibit.
The museum can be found at 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101.