Balboa Park challenge: So many museums, so little time

Up and down El Prado, the gorgeous Spanish Revivalist promenade bookended by fountains in the heart of Balboa Park, tourists clutch maps and plot moves, while every 15 minutes the mission bells remind them that time is slipping away and they had really better get going if they want to see all there is to see before the museums close at the stroke of 5 o’clock.

Which to not miss?

Which to pass up?

How to best negotiate the labyrinthine paths?

So numerous and enticing are the options that it can induce a paralysis of indecisiveness among the 14 million who visit annually. No fewer than 16 museums, 14 gardens and horticultural offerings, 11 sports and fitness complexes and six performing arts centers are woven into the 1,200-acre spread built to host the 1915 Panama-California Exposition – and that’s not counting the famous San Diego Zoo, a trip unto itself. Only the Smithsonian complex in Washington, D.C., has a larger collection of museums in one geographic location.

Huddled on a tile-covered bench not far from the visitors center, map unfurled on their laps, Dave and Karla Jeardou of Belleville, Kan., tried to make sense of it all. The couple had only one free day in town – their son was graduating the next day from Marine boot camp – and they chose to spend it in the park, rather than the beach, the harbor, the shopping districts or more commercial attractions such as Sea World.

“We were out here in 2000, but the kids were so little we kind of just walked through it and turned them loose to run through it,” Karla Jeardou said. “We said, at that time, if we ever get back to San Diego, we want to go to as many of the museums as we can that we didn’t get to with little kids.”

Their goal was realistically ambitious, based on their interest and the fact the museums are open only seven hours a day (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Science geeks, they wanted to visit Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, drop by the Air & Space Museum, maybe catch an interesting exhibit at the Museum of Man and, of course, check out the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center, given their son’s chosen calling.

Arguably, you could blow half a day in a single museum, if its subject particularly engrosses. Most tourists can bag about four or five museums before calling it a day, reported David, a docent at the visitors center who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t “authorized to speak to the media” about such terribly important matters.

He shook his head when asked if it would be feasible to visit – actually explore and linger, not merely power-walk through – every museum in two days. “You’d need more time.”

Your correspondent, heretofore not known as an Extreme Museum-goer, took this as a challenge. He liked his chances: Marston House was closed during the two weekdays he was in town. So it was only 15 museums in 14 hours. His adversaries were few: only Father Time and hovering blue-clothed museum security people.

Armed with a map and a plan – eschew the tantalizing gardens and verdant trails, eat quick lunches inside the park, hit museums in dense pockets before far-flung locales, locate a central parking lot and purchase an adult passport museum coupon book for $43 – he waited in the Plaza de Panama for the mission bells to toll at 10 a.m. A friendly local, George Pinkham, of Escondido, sidled up and provided a pre-tour pep talk.

“You’re going to enjoy this,” said Pinkham, who photographs park architecture. “Tell you the truth, I don’t think even Golden Gate Park holds a candle to this place. Good luck.”

Day 1

1. Mingei International Museum

Already, your correspondent is running behind. He stepped into this two-story trove of folk art (“mingei,” in Japanese means “art of the people”) at 10 a.m. and, before he knew it, it was 10:45 and he still had pieces to ogle. Clearly, he would need to be more discriminating in where he lingered, but the Mingei boasts the most extensive and eclectic collection this side of the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M.

Many of the pieces are objects of use as much as art. The upstairs exhibit, “Please Be Seated,” is a collection of, well, chairs, stools, loungers that “tells the story of seating,” according to the literature. Chairs ranged from Douglas Deeds’ “Beer Can Chair,” made from rusted Budweiser cans, to an Eames lounge chair and ottoman. There were historic offerings, too. Mike McClymonds of Twin Falls, Idaho, had his eye on plopping down on a stadium seat from Chicago’s old Comiskey Park. “It’s historic, but I’m not sure it’s art,” he said. His wife, Margaret, weighed in: “I’m more of a traditionalist.”

2. The San Diego Museum of Art

Tradition resides just across the Plaza de Panama in galleries featuring such notable paintings as Boguereau’s “The Young Shepherdess,” Frank Stella’s “Flin Flon VIII” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “The White Flower.”

The current exhibit, “Women, War and Industry,” hewed closely to the enduring military culture of San Diego. Your correspondent whipped out his smartphone to shoot Alonzo Earl Foringer’s 1917 poster “The Greatest Mother in the World,” but he was stopped by a blue-jacketed security officer. He retreated to the modern art wing, where photography was allowed. There, he latched onto a group of school kids sitting cross-legged in front of Diego Rivera’s “The Aqueduct,” as a docent told them to “look at the curves and see how they get smaller and bigger as they get closer to you.” When the kids started to get the glazed-eye look, the docent asked: “What do you like the best?” One girl up front: “The whole thing.”

3. San Diego Museum of Man

Smack in the middle of this serious anthropological museum – “the place to go to learn about each other, reflect on our place in the world, and build a better community” – is an exhibit called “BEERology: From Hunter-Gatherers To Hipsters,” which traces to roots of the sudsy beverage and its cultural import.

As a docent upstairs was telling schoolkids how man’s spines evolved so as to walk upright, your correspondent bellied up to a faux bar with beer aficionado Del Brown of Alpine to check out bottles from San Diego-area craft brewers. When Brown leaned in, pointing at a label, a blue-shirted guard clacked her heels on the wood floor to intervene.

At the front desk, the clerk asked, “Would you like to visit of ‘Instruments of Torture’ exhibit as well? It’s an extra $15.” While searching for a pithy retort, the clerk beat your correspondent to it: “It’s not like we’re tying you down and forcing you,” she said. The torture exhibit asks the big questions about the utility of the practice, the inhumanity, references Abu Ghraib, but really it’s an excuse to show devices such as “head crushers,” thumb screws, barrel pillories, chastity belts and the popular Iron Maiden of Nuremberg. Wisely, your correspondent didn’t even think of whipping out the smartphone, lest the contraptions be put to use against him.

4. San Diego Art Institute: Museum of the Living Artist

This small, below-street-level gallery showcases works by San Diego-area artists in many genres, but the current exhibit was a juried show of visual arts, culled from more than 12,000 submissions by artists in 85 countries.

This is worth a stop. Grass Valley photographer Kimberly Schneider’s photograph “Dreams” was featured, but the most visceral work was British photographer Mark Esper’s “Read My Lips,” a portrait of an Iranian man who stitched a cross over his cracked, dried lips in a hunger strike to protest repressive government policies.

Lunch: The Prado at Balboa Park

The noontime bells chimed the “Marines’ Hymn,” which served like a Pavlovian response to one’s salivary glands. The Prado is the only stand-alone restaurant in the park – others are fast-food grills attached to museums – and it’s worth taking precious minutes away to have a pleasant if pricey lunch on the patio overlooking the Japanese garden.

5. Timken Museum of Art

The Timken packs a lot into a small space, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Fragonard, Bierstadt and Estman Johnson. And its endowment is such that it does not have to charge admission. Crowds swelled around Flemish painter Petrus Christus’ arresting “Death of a Virgin,” 6 feet high and 5 feet wide work of oil on oak panel. Those not taking that in were paying a visit to San Diego’s lone Rembrandt, “Saint Bartholomew,” who was said to be flayed alive for his beliefs – not by blue-jacketed thugs, though.

6. Museum of Photographic Arts

These days, it seems, everyone’s a photographer, which might explain why the gallery space at this photographic museum was packed with people dangling Nikons and Canons around their necks. A large sign warns, “Please refrain from camera and video use,” citing copyright laws. We could spend paragraphs describing the sublime work of David Maisel’s “History’s Shadow” series, in which he re-photographs existing X-rays of sculptural objects to delve into the intersection of science and art. But, really, you’ve got to see it.

7. San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Even if you’re not a kid at heart, this place is worth a look. Nothing less than the entire city of San Diego and environs is laid out in model tracks, with choo-choos chugging by. “I’m sort of a train geek but nothing like this,” said John Hoffhines of Los Angeles. “This is amazing. This is our 10th (wedding) anniversary, so we’re down to see some museums. I had to see this.”

8. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Daylight waning, your correspondent thought he could bag one or two more museums before calling it a day. That was before he ventured into this hands-on science center.

Don’t expect a fast in-and-out, especially if you have kids visiting “The Tinkering Studio, “Blockbusters” and “Kid City.” The entire first floor is turned over to exhibits of physics and chemistry where visitors are expected to touch and explore and photograph. (The only blue-shirted worker was a docent who is a retired community college science teacher.)

Admission entitles visitors to a viewing of an IMAX science film, which is why your correspondent didn’t get to visit that ninth museum on Day 1. Yes, readers, he nodded off during a showing of “Mysteries of the Unseen World.”

Day 2

9. San Diego Automotive Museum

Well-rested, your correspondent found a primo parking space at 9:50 a.m. within spitting distance of the first three museums on the agenda. Already, a line of people stood outside the Air & Space Museum, arguably Balboa’s most popular. So, to let the crowd wane, he chose the auto museum, where no line was encountered for an exhibit about the history of the Corvette.

“I had one (a Corvette),” said the only other patron inside, Erik Maadaard of Herning, Denmark. “But it was too small for me. The Corvette, it’s pretty expensive in Sweden.”

Among the nuggets gleaned from a video: Vice president of design Bill Mitchell came up with the design of the 1963 Sting Ray while deep-sea fishing in Mexico.

10. San Diego Air & Space Museum

Before reaching the official entrance to the Air & Space Museum, visitors can get distracted for many minutes by the Apollo 9 command module and a model of Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis.” After handing over their tickets, though, they are immediately pounced upon by a blue polo-shirted worker.

“Step over to the green screen, sir,” she said. “We’re going to take three photos of you.”

Turns out, it’s a gambit to make money by photographing visitors “in space” and on the surface of “the moon.”

Most of the crowd gravitated toward the World War I airplane exhibits, such as the triple-winged Fokker Dr I, or the World War II planes. Your correspondent, however, couldn’t get enough of the large exhibit documenting the rise and fall of Pacific Southwest Airlines – the erstwhile carrier that painted a smile on the front of planes. Those orange-hot pink flight attendant uniforms, skimpy as mini skirts, from 1973, along with knee-high red boots, testified to the exuberance of the “golden age” of commercial airline flight, before baggage fees and cramped seats. Kudos to the museum for acknowledging the 1978 flight from Sacramento that crashed while trying to land at Lindbergh Field.

Once your correspondent pried himself away from the PSA exhibit, he briefly thought of paying extra for the Blue Angels Flight Simulator ride. The ride was not recommended for anyone suffering from “motion sickness or claustrophobia.” Two for two.

11. San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum

Let’s face it, San Diego doesn’t boast a lot of sports champions. Sure, Ted Williams is a native son, as is Marcus Allen and Bill Walton, but that’s hardly enough to hang a museum on. It was mildly interesting, however, to see Tony Hawk’s scratched-up skateboard deck and Steve Garvey’s soiled batting glove. The America’s Cup exhibit, alas, was dry docked, a blue-shirted woman at the front desk said.

12a. Veterans Museum & Memorial Center (Part 1)

At this museum housed in an old Navy chapel, your correspondent was stopped at the door by an armada of Navy officers in dress blues. A retirement ceremony for Leonard Vaillancourt of the Operations Supply Chain Management was just breaking up, and the museum was closed.

13. San Diego Natural History Museum

They call it “The Nat,” and the four-level museum covers Southern (and Baja) California’s natural world, from gnats to dinosaurs. Your correspondent arrived a few days early for the “Coffee: Your World in a Cup” exhibit, but a vast collection of skulls, from lizards to humans, kept him awake. Interesting factoid: A black bear’s skull is larger than an African lion’s, but an alligator’s is larger still. At the “Water: A California Story” exhibit, take time to watch a four-minute video tracing the path of water from the San Diego Mountains to the ocean.

Your correspondent passed on the 3-D movie “Titans of the Ice Age,” for fear of dozing.


Choices were grills in the Air & Space or Hall of Champions. Skipped it.

14. San Diego History Center

“Bottled and Kegged: San Diego’s Craft Brew Culture” would be easy to dismiss as a blatant attempt to cash in on craft beer’s sudden hipness, but, fact is, San Diego has brewed its own beer since 1871 and after Prohibition reclaimed its sudsy place in the beer pantheon.

“I’m a home brewer myself,” said docent John DeGrazio, “and the whole thing’s exploded here the past 20 years.”

The museum tackles other subjects, as well, such as the battles over immigration and border-patrol policies, as part of an exhibit in which a curator asked artists to “improve upon nature,” human and otherwise, in San Diego.

15. Centro Cultural de la Raza

This multicultural center is not easy to miss. It’s round with murals encircling it, and it stands near the crest of a hill on Park Boulevard.

Still, attendance was sparse as the afternoon shadows set in. It was light enough inside, however, to properly illuminate native son Yermo Aranda’s vivid, colorful mural “La Dualidad (The Duality).” More topically, an altars remembers people of color “killed by police brutality” in San Diego and a mixed-media painting of Trayvon Martin hanging from a cross, with Skittles strewn about the canvas.

12b. Veterans Museum & Memorial Center (Part 2)

The coast was not clear. This time, sailors in fatigues and uniformed officers were rehearsing another retirement ceremony. But visitors were welcome to roam the periphery, lined with memorabilia. While this visitor was reading a letter from the wife of a Vietnam War POW to a member of the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris, a female voice came on the PA system reading from a script.

“Left,” she barked. “Right-face!”

A superior cut in. “Louder,” he said. “Project from the uterus.”


At that point, your correspondent did an about-face and marched out.

Mission accomplished: 15 museums in 13 hours, 37 minutes.