With more than 90 museums in San Diego, culture lovers have no shortage of spaces to explore. Culture Trip profiles the city’s best museums and institutions, from art centers to science exhibitions.
San Diego’s museums are a testament to its varied history, from its robust military presence to its arts acumen and wildlife research and preservation. They pay homage to California’s strengths and teach visitors about their local culture. The USS Midway Museum is aboard a historic aircraft carrier where visitors can learn about America’s veterans and the conflicts in which they fought, while the Birch Aquarium at Scripps offers a close-up look at the lively ocean life in the area. Then there’s Balboa Park, the central green space that houses more than 16 museums and is an epicenter of educational opportunity, fun and nature. These must-visit museums run the gamut from history, anthropology and aviation to marine life and everything in between.
Located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Natural History Museum grew out of the San Diego Society of Natural History, founded in 1874, making it Southern California’s oldest scientific institution and the third oldest west of the Mississippi. Commonly known as the Nat, it houses four floors of exhibition space, a 3D theater and approximately 9 million specimens in its research collection. Permanent displays include a replica of a prehistoric megalodon; the Foucault Pendulum, which provides visual proof of the Earth’s rotation; 200 unique animal skulls from the research collection; and the basement living lab where you can see snakes, bees, lizards, spiders and other creepy-crawlies that advance the museum’s mission of environmental education.
As the only anthropology museum in the region, the San Diego Museum of Man offers a diverse program, including cannibalism, beer history and humans’ relationships with animals. Its mission is to inspire connections by helping to understand the human experience better, and it accomplishes this goal through its hundreds of thousands of documented ethnographic objects, archaeological items and photographic images. Constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the museum was designed by the famous architect Bertram Goodhue – it has Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque and Rococo details and a unique Spanish Colonial exterior that hints at a Gothic influence, with inspiration from Spanish churches in Mexico. It has since become a San Diego landmark that showcases five permanent exhibitions on topics from Native Californians to ancient Egypt. It also has revolving special exhibits that feature artefacts from the museum’s collections and around the world.
With a collection of more than 7,000 photographs by 850 photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Stieglitz and Ruth Bernhard, the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) devotes itself entirely to the collection and preservation of photography, film and video, including its aesthetic movements and technological advancements. In particular, MOPA’s collection features a large selection of mid-20th-century Soviet Russian photography, social documentary photography and photojournalism. Since its foundation in 1983, the museum’s endeavors consistently address cultural, historical and social issues through its exhibitions and educational programs. In addition, the museum houses a state-of-the-art movie theater that often holds international film festivals.
Some people may have a grand piano in the living room or a guitar lying around, but what actually goes into making these instruments the vibrant playable pieces of art that they are? The National Association of Music Merchants, which founded the Museum of Making Music in 1998 “to showcase and celebrate the music products industry,” answers that question. Through the museum’s various exhibits, you will learn about the people who make the instruments and what they sound like when played by an expert. You can even play them yourself via interactive stations. The museum’s history begins in 1900 and chronologically explores themes such as the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of instruments. Permanent displays include hundreds of vintage instruments, audio and video clips – all organized chronologically. Twice a year, special exhibitions are displayed, offering a chance to experiment on technology that you don’t encounter every day, along with music presentations and workshops that showcase renowned international and national musicians as well as local talent.
Alex Wexelman contributed additional reporting to this article.