The other day, I went to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana. The last time I was there was in 1975, when the museum experienced what is arguably its greatest day ever: it’s where I first walked unassisted. I was shocked to find that this day was not immortalized anywhere on the grounds of the museum.

They did have, however, some impressive collections of artwork and crafted pieces from all over the globe. I photographed some of the more interesting pieces.

In the China gallery, I particularly liked the jade pieces, although the collection can’t really compare to the entire jade gallery at the Field Museum in Chicago.

People usually think of jade as being just green but as you’ll see, it’s not quite as simple as that. In fact, there are two different minerals commonly called jade: nephrite, an amphibole-type (calcium-magnesium-iron) silicate; and jadeite, a pyroxene-type (sodium-aluminum) silicate.

Both minerals are pure white unless they contain trace metals like chromium, which give them their various colors. Jadeite is the primary component of the rock called jadeitite, a metamorphic rock which forms only under conditions of high pressure and low temperature, which means it forms only in subduction zones, where oceanic crust dives under continental crust.

This is a jade bi from the neolithic period, 7000-1500 BC. The Chinese associate jade with immortality, and the circle shape with the heavens. This type of item was often found in high-status burials.

This is a jade cong, also from the neolithic period. It is thought to have had religious significance and is found in coastal sites.

These jade bowls were for cleaning calligraphy or paint brushes. The one in the rear has four animals peering over the edge, while the one in front is shaped as an open lotus pad. Date unknown.

This jade dish is from the 19th or 20th century. The dragon at one end is the ruler of all animals; the phoenix at the other end is the ruler of all birds. They may also represent the emperor and empress. The bats in the middle are symbols of good fortune.

There is another fascinating jade piece in the South Pacific Islands exhibit later.

Of course, there were many, many other beautiful pieces as well.

This pendant is from the Warring States period, 481-221 BC. I don’t know the material.

This intricately carved jar is from the Western Jin Dynasty, 265-317. This was a storage jar for the tomb, and some speculate that it was intended to house the spirit of the dead.

This three-color jar is a distinctive style of the High Tang period, 684-756. To the white clay was applied green and brown glazes which were allowed to run together.

This might be my favorite piece. This was a style characteristic of Northern China during the Song Dynasty, 906-1279.

This is from the same period, but from Southern China.

I just love the facial expressions on these terra cotta horses from the Song or early Ming dynasty.

This design is called the “three friends” motif. The pine and bamboo remain green through winter, while the plum tree blossoms at the end of winter, symbolizing longevity, perseverance, and integrity. Early Ming Dynasty, 1426-1435.

This was carved from a single piece of wood in the late Ming Dynasty, 1600-1644. It is of Guanyin, the Chinese Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. She was originally a male deity in India, named Avalokiteshvara, but by the time he was introduced to China, China already had several cults devoted to female deities, and he was feminized.

This exquisite ivory piece is from the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911.

The museum gave no information about this piece, but it’s adorable, isn’t it?

A couple things caught my eye in the Southern Pacific Islands gallery.

There are several theories about the significance of this 18th century Maori nephrite jade pendant from New Zealand. Isn’t it the creepiest, most awesome thing ever?

This is a 20th century mask from the Abelam people of Papua New Guinea. Creating these masks seems like almost a full-time job for these people. The dances in which they were worn were the main spiritual/community activity for these tribes. In some cases, they would spend dozens of hours making masks such as these, only to throw them in the fire after the dance is complete.

Believe it or not, this is money! This is called a tevau and is composed of the feathers of more than 300 scarlet Honeyeaters and grey Pacific Pigeons. It took hundreds of hours to make a tevau of this size, and it could be used for a bride price or to buy pigs. Imagine the wallet you need to carry this around.

The museum has a permanent First Californians exhibit. Among the many beautiful baskets were these:

There were also these soapstone carvings from Channel Islands Culture, 1000-1700: a dolphin and a killer whale. Soapstone (steatite) is just a massive form of talc, formed by metamorphosis of magnesium-silicate minerals.

This headband of red-shafted flicker bird feathers was from late 19th or early 20th century Yuki or Pomo culture in Northern California.

Finally, there was a scrimshaw gallery. If you’ve seen one piece of scrimshaw, you’ve seen them all. But they had a couple pieces made of carved whale bone, produced by prisoners of war around the turn of the 19th century. I couldn’t believe the detail these had, right down to the severed heads. But I guess when you’re a prisoner of war, you have a lot of time on your hands.

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