In 1911, San Diego began planning the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, creating a unique educational concept to distinguish itself from the San Francisco exposition planned for the same year.
Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett of the School of American Archaeology (now the School of American Research) was appointed designer of the central exhibit, The Story of Man through the Ages. He took expeditions to the Southwest to collect prehistoric pottery and to Guatemala to make replicas of Maya monuments.
Dr. Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution was engaged to collect specimens for the most comprehensive physical anthropology exhibition ever assembled. Expeditions were sent to Alaska, Siberia, Africa, and the Philippines, and European museums provided important casts and photographs of early man fossils. From Peru, skeletal material and rare trephined skulls were collected.
The Panama-California Exposition opened on January 1, 1915, with The Story of Man through the Ages enjoying public acclaim.
As the Exposition neared its close in November 1915, a farsighted group of San Diegans formed the San Diego Museum Association.
Led by prominent citizen George Marston, they were determined to retain the valuable collections and to establish a museum of anthropology. Dr. Hewett became the first Director, and important collections followed, notably the Jessop Weapon Collection and the Scripps Egyptian Collection. Field work by Museum staff in the 1930s focused on prehistoric sites of Southern California. Through the efforts of pioneer archaeologist Malcolm J. Rogers, hundreds of sites, many now destroyed by development, were recorded.
Because of the Museum’s concentration on anthropology, its name was changed in 1942 to the Museum of Man (with “San Diego” added in 1978). During World War II, the Museum was converted to a hospital, and exhibits and collections were stored. During the 20-year directorship of Clark Evernham, beginning in 1951, the Museum entered a period of community outreach. Important acquisitions were made which included Mexican apparel and ceramics.
In 1966, the collection and research focus of the Museum was narrowed to the peoples of the Western Americas. This redefinition of purpose capitalized on collection strengths and acknowledged our proximity to these cultures.
In 1972, Lowell E. English, retired Marine Corps Major General, became Director. For the next decade, the focus was on establishing a strong financial base.
The Collectors Club was started in 1974 to support collection acquisitions. The Haber Collection of Mayan figurines and the Harkleroad Collection of Southern California archaeological material were accessioned.
A 1980 amendment of the mission allowed for temporary exhibits from regions outside our area of specialization to provide cross-cultural perspective. In 1981, the Museum commenced planning for large-scale capital improvements and exhibit enhancement. Anthropologist Douglas Sharon became Director, and major projects were undertaken: doubling the collection storage, remodeling the lobby, paving the Plaza de California, restoring the historic St. Francis Chapel, installing an elevator and modern HVAC, adding a 16,000-square-foot education and design center, and renovating expanded exhibits.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s important collections were acquired: the Gildred Collection of pre-Hispanic Peruvian ceramics, Mexican and Guatemalan apparel, the Stanford-Meyer Osteopathology Collection, the Cannon Collection of Southern Californian Indian basketry, and the Smith Collection of Egyptian antiquities. The Museum’s research collections reached 72,000 items plus 37,000 historic photographs, mostly of Native Americans, and unquantified archaeological holdings.
In 1994, recognizing that cultural preservation is intimately linked to the environment, the Museum expanded its mission to include human ecology. As we approach a new century, our original philosophy, wherein collections form the basis for relevant exhibits, education, and research, is being reaffirmed.
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