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Tourist in L.A.

By Frank J. Gruber

Last year over the holidays my wife had professional meetings in New York and she took me and our son Henry along. We had a good time then, as tourists in New York, and in retrospect that week was precious.

We took the boat trip around the harbor, to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and now we have snapshots of us -- all bundled up against the cold, backs against the boat's rail -- with the twin towers sparkling behind us.

Someone on the internet with huge computer storage should establish an archive where ordinary people around the world can send their snaps of friends and families with the towers in the background, to make a giant photo album, in the "Lest We Forget" department.

This year we stayed home for the holidays. My wife, who teaches at USC, was off for their winter break, no one was doing much business that required me to go to my office, school was out for Henry, and so we played at being tourists in L.A. We had a lot of fun.

One day we drove to Santa Ana, to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. I have lived in Southern California for 23 years, but this was my first trip to this fine museum. (It might have been my first trip to Santa Ana.) The sudden draw was that the Bowers currently has two excellent special exhibitions -- one of Etruscan artifacts, mostly on loan from archaeological museums in Italy, and the other of antiquities and artifacts from the "Holy Land" chosen to survey more than 2,000 years of pre-history and history.

Both exhibitions couple excellent explanatory material with truly stunning artifacts. The Holy Land show includes not only some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but even more remarkably, the actual fragment of a stela, discovered in 1993, that contains the oldest mention of the "House of David" outside of the Bible. This is the first time this piece has left Israel.

The Etruscan show includes material that, if one were travelling in Italy, one would have to wander all over central Italy to see -- and half the time the museums would be closed for restoration. And, let's face it, if you go to Italy and you are like most people, you will concentrate on the Roman and the Renaissance and skip the Etruscans. So this is your best chance to see Etruscan art and artifacts, and there is a sarcophagus in this show that Michelangelo would have been happy to have carved.

We took one of Henry's friend along -- museums are always easier for a kid with a friend -- and if you go with two twelve-year-old boys, rest assured that there are enough weapons and helmets to keep them interested.

Museum-going is gruelling work, of course, but afterwards we stopped in Little Saigon and restored ourselves with spring rolls, duck salad, noodles and "Vietnamese pizza."

A few days after that excursion we went to the Getty, mostly to see a fascinating show called "Devices of Wonder," which consists of various optical, mechanical, scientific and artistic devices more or less inspired by the concept of a "cabinet of wonders." Ricky Jay, the magician, was a key advisor to the curators and there is a strong thematic connection to our nearby Museum of Jurassic Technology.

This is also a good show to take kids. We took Henry and another friend, and they both had a good time, although the exhibition rooms are dark and they faded before my wife and I did.

Grown-ups should budget a fair amount of time to see "Devices of Wonder" because the fun is in the details, and I hope to return soon for a longer look.

Driving around during the holidays was mostly a pleasure -- obviously a lot of people took time off and the freeways were rarely crowded. Traffic on the boulevards in Orange County, however, is terrible, much worse than in Santa Monica, notwithstanding that development appears to be considerably less dense.

The Getty was packed. We had a parking reservation, for 12:30, and pulled off the freeway at 12:15, but the wait from exiting the freeway to entering the parking was one hour and six minutes. I had wrongly assumed that with many Getty employees on vacation, it would be easy to drive in. As it turned out, taking the bus would have been faster.

As much as I enjoy the views from the Getty, every time I go there I wish the museum was more open to the casual visit. I wonder if the museum could have been built in Santa Monica on the sites that became The Water Garden, Colorado Place and the Arboretum. To my knowledge the Getty Trust never considered those locations, even though the Trust's offices were in Santa Monica.

The City of Santa Monica ran a big promotion this year to stay "home for the holidays," but man does not live on shopping and beaches alone. For all the patting on our backs that we do over how "cultural" and "artistic" Santa Monica is, there is nothing of great cultural or artistic interest in Santa Monica, at least of a public nature, to do or see.

I hope this weekend to take one more touristic trip before returning to my insular (coastal?) life, this time to the Norton Simon in Pasadena. I haven't been there in years, and it has been redesigned by Frank Gehry. But I have to find out if they have any ancient weapons or cool gadgets to keep Henry amused.

Details: You can obtain information about the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art at:

The Holy Land show closes January 9, next Wednesday, so there is not much time to see it.

The Etruscan show closes April 21.

"Devices of Wonder" will continue at the Getty until February. You can take a terrific cyber tour of the exhibit by way of the Getty website:

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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