Show and Tell
The Bowers Blog has, on several occasions, featured objects from our Margaret & Cleo Key Courtyard. Originally designed to complement the museum’s mission revival style aesthetic, over the years it has been a home to a whole host of objects, not the least of which were large ox-drawn wagons, sports cars, a replica of a boat which was heroically piloted by Antarctic explorers, and three of Fernando Botero’s voluminous sculptures. This guide explores a selection of objects remaining in the courtyard, diving into what they are and how they came to rest in there.
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Three of the stones in the Bowers Museum’s courtyard form a triumvirate of some of the museum’s earliest acquisitions. Found in 1885 on a ridge between Bell and lower Trabuco canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains, this mysterious “maze stone” was made by a member of the Tongva culture. Experts and non-experts alike have speculated as to its meaning. An early Orange County deputy marshal was certain that this stone represented a topographical map of the area with water and food sources marked. Others have drawn a parallel to the maze designs seen on the baskets of southwestern indigenous peoples. These generally represent philosophical depictions of life with the branching paths of the maze being the different paths one can take.
2. Ground in Fact
This is a grinding or milling stone which would have traditionally been used to grind acorns by Southern California’s Tongva culture. It too came to the museum in 1936, but there are disputed accounts as to how. The first offers that the stone was cut from the bedrock of Silverado Canyon to be moved to the Key Courtyard shortly before 1936. A second states that the stone was rediscovered by a rancher in 1925. Seeing a chance to charge tourists to see the stone, he had been planning to excavate and move the stone when an Irvine Park Supervisor caught wind. The stone was instead moved to the park where it was buried until 1936.
3. Gneiss Ring to It
The third of the three stones also comes from the Santa Ana Mountains and was also made and used by the Tongva people. It is a ringing or bell stone which prior to being moved would have been placed atop other stones so that it resonated when it was struck. Unfortunately, a rumor that there was something valuable beneath the stone led to someone accidentally dropping the stone and forever ruining its resonance. The depression on the rock might indicate where it was hit or may have been used like the holes on the grinding stone.
4. By Merlin’s King’s Sword
Of course, there is a fourth iconic stone sitting in the Key Courtyard. This one is of contemporary make, however, and rather than being inspired by the indigenous peoples of California is based on Arthurian myth. Robert de Boron's late 12th century epic poem Merlin holds that Arthur, King of the Britains, proved his right to rule by pulling Excalibur from an anvil atop a stone. This piece was created from a locally sourced boulder and replica sword as a promotion for our 2018 Knights in Armor exhibition.
5. Dulled Font
This fountain is named after Ada E. Bowers, who donated her and her husband’s land for the creation of this museum, a prestigious honor if you overlook the museum proper having officially been named solely after her husband. The figure of the Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo was created by the Los Angeles-based sculptor Ada May Sharpless in 1932. Originally the fountain ran from the feature on its left side but was filled in later in the century. The scenes on the front of the fountain are now faded but are snapshots into the history of California.
6. This Seat Taken
This curious figure is an apparent replica of a sculpture from Veracruz made in volcanic stone. Of all the objects in the courtyard, the least is known about this piece which is not even formally a part of the museum’s collections. The only known historical image of the sculpture shows it next to a former Bowers curator, Armand Labbé, at an at an opening for a 1980s pre-Columbian exhibition.
7. Milling About
This volcanic millstone used to rest in front of the California pepper tree in our courtyard before the tree was removed. It was found on Halladay's Ranch in what is now Yorba Linda, a quarter of a mile from the site of an old grist mill which had been inherited from Don Bernardo Yorba. The water-powered mill was said to be the only one in the territory now known as Orange County.
8. On the Balbal
Emerging from wood chips near to the functional fountain in the courtyard is a fiberglass reproduction of a statue which would have originally been made in Southern Russia, Ukraine, Prussia, southern Siberia, Central Asia, or Mongolia around the 5th or 6th century. Known as kurgan stelae or balbals, these figures are memorial markers for the dead. The vast area in which these figures are found means that there is significant variation between balbals. Distinct stones, carvings and shapes are employed in different regions.
9. Sweet and Sappy
For those who have explored the courtyard’s balcony, this log vat would have originally been used for making and storing molasses. Crafted from a felled corotu tree, this was made in the Herrera Province of Panama some 250 to 300 years ago. The vat served two purposes: first sugarcane was squeezed out into the vat where it was collected. Later, after it was boiled, the molasses was also stored in the vat. Leather was placed over the top to ensure that nothing could get into the molasses.
10. Balcony Bell
The other object of note on the balcony is a bronze bell decorated with ecclesiastical designs. Designs molded into its outer surface include a cross, the crucifixion, and a Madonna. All three are interlaced with lacy scrolls. According to the donors, this bell once hung in a church near or in Mexico City until it was brought to their ranch.
11. The Two Tower(bell)s
Two bells hang in the museum’s bell tower, greeting—in better times—entrants to the museum. One of these bells came from the old grammar and high school in Santa Ana, called Central School. It was purchased by a former music and art teacher and donated to the museum so that it would not be destroyed. The other was an electronic bell used at the old Santa Ana fire house. It would ring up to about twelve times to indicate which part of the city a fire was in. It was a dispatch signal alarm bell and never had a clapper.
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