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Bessie Beth Beginnings

Bessie Beth Coulter, c. 1927
Unknown photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 6 7/8 × 5 in.
Bowers Museum Collection

An Object in Motion

As any who have ever combatted inertia can attest—presumably all of us—it is far more difficult to start something than it is to keep it in motion. March is Women’s History Month, and this year the Bowers Blog turns its eye to some of the great women associated with the creation and recent history of the Bowers Museum. The first of these figures is not often mentioned but could not have been more pivotal in the foundation of the museum. Her name is Bessie Beth Coulter.

Bowers History Room, Now the Segerstrom Gallery, 1932-1936
Edward W. Cochems (American, 1874-1949); Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 11 x 14 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert S. Borders

Banking on Coulter

Local history buffs will know that construction of the Bowers Museum began soon after the passing of Ada Bowers in 1929 and that by 1932 the museum had been built but could not yet open. It was amidst the Great Depression and the museum had run into funding problems: there was a general lack of interest from the city, there were no qualified staff to run the museum, and—because Charles and Ada Bowers had not themselves owned significant collections—there was essentially nothing to exhibit. In the two years following its construction the Bowers Museum collected more cobwebs than funding or artifacts. Fortunately, the museum’s luck had already started to change. The Bowers’ trust had been managed by First National Bank since 1924 and despite having already processed the gift of the museum to Santa Ana, it was still in part responsible for realizing the grantors’ dream. During a routine 1932 meeting with Bessie Beth Coulter, who was at the time serving as executor for her late husband’s estate, she mentioned that the position of Curator at the museum sounded like an interesting job.

Bessie Beth Coulter, 1927-1928
Edward W. Cochems (American, 1874-1949); Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 10 x 8 in.
Bowers Museum Collection

As Luck Would Have It

Despite having almost no background in arts and culture, she piqued the interest of bank staff for having leadership positions in no less than four local organizations and committees. In the past Coulter had also published on several topics and had earned a reputation for management from having helped to organize at least two nursing programs in Omaha, Nebraska before moving out to California. The Trust Officer also knew that she could use a regular paycheck in supporting her aged mother-in-law. Two years passed between this conversation and her first entering the museum, but she was eventually selected for the position of the Bowers Museum’s first Curator. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established and a portion of the money that went to Santa Ana was earmarked for the museum. With the staff and money problems solved, it was a matter of finding objects to exhibit.

A Blank Page

“I think of the Museum as a book, the beautiful courtyard as the jacket, the corridor as the preface. Here are placed just a few choice articles that they may intrigue the visitor and by capturing the imagination impel him to go further…”
Bessie Beth Coulter

Coulter knew being curator of the Bowers museum was going to be a difficult task. Through the WPA she was given two secretaries, an archeologist, and a clerk, all of whom were less than qualified for their positions. To secure loans and donations to the museum she made house calls across the county, reaching out to descendants of Orange’s earliest families. She started with practically nothing and built collections of artifacts from California’s Indigenous peoples, the mission period, and the rancho families. Within just two years Mrs. Coulter had accomplished the enormous task of getting the Bowers museum ready for the public. After the museum opened, she remained a ceaseless force in the advancement of the Bowers’ permanent collection and reputation. In part on the advice of other Southern Californian museums and in part to secure the Martha C. Stevens Memorial Art Collection she personally saw to the creation of a Bowers’ foundation, interviewing and hand picking the first seven members.

Images from a 1977 Doll exhibition, very much in keeping with the annual doll exhibitions from Coulter's time.

Dolling the Place Up

It would of course be impossible to tell the story of Bessie Beth without talking about dolls. Coulter had a guiding personal philosophy that she could rest well if she could touch the life of even one person. Feeling that it was particularly important to do so for young children, she paired her belief with another she held, that dolls could be used to teach any subject. In 1941 she put together the first Bowers International Doll Exhibition. However, the exhibition neither toured internationally nor were the dolls in it international; instead they were dressed by Coulter herself in the style of many of the cultures of the world. It was an enormous success, enough so that there was a second annual doll exhibition in 1942 and again every year that Coulter was at the museum. Over time the exhibition became more and more prestigious until it truly did become an exhibit of dolls from around the world. By the time that Coulter retired in 1960 she herself had a reputation as a leading expert on dolls. Proud as she was of her doll exhibitions, Coulter was prouder still to have created an institution which could inspire young and old minds alike. Without her it is almost certain that the Bowers could not bring international cultures to Southern California in the way it does so today.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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Comments 3

Guest - John Evans on Friday, 05 March 2021 15:31

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this history. It took me to other historical information on the internet. We are all grateful for Bessie Beth Coulter.

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this history. It took me to other historical information on the internet. We are all grateful for Bessie Beth Coulter.
Guest - Kathleen Barrutia on Tuesday, 09 March 2021 10:57

How interesting. I have always heard about the doll collection and often wondered why? A lovely article!

How interesting. I have always heard about the doll collection[b][/b] and often wondered why? A lovely article!
Guest - Paul Dowdle on Friday, 12 March 2021 11:46

One wonders if the doll exhibition was an inspiration for Disney's "It's a Small World."

One wonders if the doll exhibition was an inspiration for Disney's "It's a Small World."
Saturday, 21 May 2022

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