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Whether you love the craftsmanship of a few perfect brushstrokes conveying subtle human emotion, or thrill at seeing signs of the artist's hand from long ago, San Diego's museums are rich in the classics. Here are seven spots where you can admire time-honored artistic talent.
Coronado celebrates and preserves its past, and with good reason. Archaeological excavations show that this seaside resort has attracted visitors for thousands of years. That makes the Hotel del Coronado, which opened in 1888, a relative newcomer. Dive into the stories at the Coronado Museum of History and Art, located in a 1910 neoclassical building that once housed the Bank of Commerce. Permanent exhibits include photographs and artifacts from the turn of the century when the area was known as "Tent City," and the significance of the Naval Air Station North Island, where naval aviation began.
For more of Coronado's past, make a stop at Bay Books across the street. One of the few remaining independent bookstores, it's particularly strong in biographies and military history.
Where: 1100 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA 92118
In San Diego's East County, on the campus of Cuyamaca College, is an eclectic array of paintings, sculpture, antiquities, gems, minerals and taxidermied animals. Organized into four wings (Natural History, Archaeology, Anthropology and Art) you can move through Heritage of the Americas Museum in a chronological manner, beginning with meteorites, trilobites and fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits before advancing to pre-Columbian treasures from Mexico and Peru — or just skip around to whatever catches your eye. It's a good place to visit with the family because parents can browse one wing while kids visit another. Highlights are a jade Chinese burial suit from the Han Dynasty and a Nez Perce dentalium shell dress.
Where: 12110 Cuyamaca College Dr West, El Cajon, CA 92019
Everything about the Mingei bespeaks elegance, from the clean lines of the glass and steel entry doors, to the soft lighting, honey-colored birch floors, and vibrant raw silks in the gift shop. It all stems from the museum's focus. The word "mingei" was coined by Japanese philosopher Sōetsu Yanagi, and translates to "art of the people." Exhibitions center on beauty found in daily life: the patina of a child's wooden toy or the graceful lines of a mid-century modern chair. Fans of decorative arts will find much to appreciate in Mingei's permanent collection and rotating shows, which are anchored in the Japanese aesthetic but feature craftsmanship from many cultures.
Where: 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
When was the last time you saw a Chinese unicorn? That's one of the delights you'll find at this gem of a museum. San Diego's Chinese community first appeared around the 1850s when fishermen built a thriving commercial industry and export business. More waves of migrants came in the 1870s and 1890s with the gold rush and railroad construction, and San Diego's Chinatown grew. The Chinese Historical Museum tells their story, placing it in context with art and artifacts from earlier eras. There's a limestone Buddha head from the Northern Qi Dynasty; a fierce temple guardian from the Ming Dynasty, created with bulging glass eyes and a beard and mustache of real hair; and an elaborate processional shrine from the late 19th century. The unicorn, or qilin, appears on a stone hitching post circa 1750-1800.
Where: 404 Third Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
With an extensive collection of European, American, Latin American and Asian art from 5,000 B.C. to the present, SDMA is high on the list for those seeking the classics. And while everyone has their favorites, from the massive Japanese urn to the German Impressionists, visitors invariably gravitate to Juan Sánchez Cotán’s "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber." This masterpiece, now over 400 years old, looks strikingly contemporary in its composition and high contrast. Michael Brown, associate curator of European art, calls it "utterly revolutionary." It was one of the first still-life paintings made in Spain and marked the birth of naturalism. Also on the "don't miss list" are works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Visible Vaults. Thanks to a creative solution of storage and display, visitors can enjoy an intimate look at his drawings and illustrations.
Where: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102
For artistry that transcends time, it's hard to beat ancient Egypt. Head to the second floor of the Museum of Us, where you'll be rewarded with rare amulets, mummy masks and sculptures called ushabtis, symbolic servants who would do manual labor on behalf of the deceased. Wealthy nobles might be buried with as many as 365 statuettes, thus ensuring an easy afterlife.
Adjacent to the Egyptian gallery is an exhibit of Kumeyaay art and tools. Look for baskets with bold geometrics, characteristic of the period between 1870 and 1930, and pottery bowls adorned with whimsical faces.
Where: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102
A major renovation in 2016 made the Natural History Museum's research library into an airy, welcoming space for the public, and created a gallery for their collection of watercolor "plant portraits" by Albert Robert Valentien. In 1908, the journalist and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps commissioned Valentien to document the wildflowers of California. For ten years, he traveled from the Mexican border to the northern California coast, and the results are the marriage of a botanist's eye and an artist's touch. The collection consists of 1094 paintings depicting 1500 species, with approximately 10 paintings on display at a time.
Also popular are illustrations of dragons and mythical beasts, taken from the 1640 "Serpentum et Draconum Historiae" by Ulisse Aldrovandi and the rare 1517 "Hortus Sanitatis," one of the first encyclopedias of natural history. The museum is understandably proud of their complete "Birds of America," a Double Elephant Folio from John James Audubon. The term refers to the size of the book, 40 inches by 30 inches, large enough that birds could be shown life-size.
Where: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Online reviews of the Timken invariably mention the security guards. Yes, they can be exceptionally attentive, but wouldn’t you be if you were guarding a priceless Rembrandt, the only one on regular display in San Diego? "Saint Bartholomew," painted in 1657, is a standout in a collection known for several stunning Dutch and Flemish works, along with other European masterpieces such as Francisco de Zurbarán's "Saint Francis in Meditation," walls of French tapestries, and Russian icons spanning five centuries. The building is itself a work of art, a mid-century jewel box of travertine, bronze and glass where the art is displayed on upholstered walls under natural light.
Where: 1500 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
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