Showcasing Museums of Balboa Park, San Diego

Public History Interns Series

Author: Holly Miller, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She has been visiting San Diego and the museums at Balboa Park since childhood and has seen it transform over the years, especially after the pandemic.


San Diego is one of the United States’ most culturally diverse cities. At its heart is Balboa Park. Home to 17 museums, the San Diego Zoo and over 1,200 acres of gardens and parkland, it provides a unique opportunity for visitors and residents alike to experience history through thought-provoking exhibits and events. It is important to note that all of the museums within Balboa Park are currently residing on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay people. Each of the museums are generally quite good at paying respect and gratitude to the indigenous people and you can find many acknowledgments to the land on each of their respective websites. 

Below are some of the most unique and special museums that I believe are worth the experience when visiting Balboa Park:

A building with trees and a statue

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Mingei International Museum, photography by Mingei International Museum.

Mingei International Museum

Open 10am – 5pm Tues, Wed, Sat & Sun.

Open 10am – 8pm Thurs & Fri.

Closed Monday.

The Mingei International Museum strives to further the understanding of art of the people, celebrating all cultures of the world. A major focus for the museum is showcasing art representing daily life and the human spirit. They achieve this by letting the objects speak for themselves and reveal similarities and distinctions between cultures as well as individuals. Through excellence, collaboration, transparency, and integrity the Mingei International Museum works to create a space for people of all ages and backgrounds to express their own innate creativity. The museum often holds community events that specialise in the collaboration of different cultures and expanding the knowledge of how art influences groups of people. 

A building with a sign and people walking in front of it

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Air & Space Museum, photography by balboapark.org

Air & Space Museum

Open 10am – 4:30pm Daily. 

Preserve, Inspire, Educate, Celebrate! These are the words that the Air and Space Museum strives to achieve daily when welcoming visitors. The museum takes the guests through the history of aviation, beginning with the hot air balloon in 1783, and going through the developments since, including a variety of war and military aircrafts. The museum also offers the chance for space exploration and encourages the public to truly experience life from the air through their MaxFlight simulators, the Kid’s Aviation Action Hanger and their 3D/4D movie theatre. The museum is housed in the former Ford Building and is currently listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, it opened to the public in 1963, and has been inspiring visitors to interact with the history of air and space since. 

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Museum of Us, photography by balboapark.org

Museum of Us

Open 10am – 5pm Wed-Sun.

Formerly known as the San Diego Museum of Man, the Museum of Us is a space that focuses on breaking patterns of colonialism and reconnecting with the Kumeyaay Nation whose land the museum sits on. Their aim is to generate human connection and self-reflection through the experience of multicultural perspectives. The transformation that the museum has been undergoing showcases their determination to undo the institutional practices which they continue to do through their cultural resources and guidance from elders, artists, Indigenous and communities of colour, who are frequent collaborators. The museum’s history began in 1915 during the Panama-California Exposition, where the exhibit “The Story of Man through the Ages,” showcased some of the museum’s original collections. 

A white building with stairs and trees with San Diego Natural History Museum in the background

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San Diego Natural History Museum, photography by Holly Miller.

San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT):

Open 10am – 5pm Daily.

The Natural History Museum was founded in 1874 by a group of amateur naturalists and is one of the oldest scientific institutions in Southern California. It is one of the most popular museums within Balboa Park with almost 400,000 visitors each year, specialising in interpreting the natural world. They aim to provide an understanding of the evolution of San Diego and the southern California region in general, while actively involving the community to participate in diverse exhibits. Having expanded extensively throughout the years, the museum now has room to present permanent exhibitions as well as a research centre that serves as a major hub for biodiversity research in Southern California. 

San Diego Museum of Art with a stone entrance

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The San Diego Museum of Art / Museum of Photographic Arts, photography by Holly Miller.

The San Diego Museum of Art / Museum of Photographic Arts

Open 10am – 5pm Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri & Sat.

Open 12pm – 5pm Sunday.

Closed – Wednesday. 

Open 11am – 5pm Thurs- Sun.

The San Diego Museum of Art officially opened in 1926 as The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego and encouraged appreciation of the arts by hosting free events and demonstrations by local artists. During the second World War, the museum was transformed into a military hospital until 1947, when the Fine Arts Society was able to reclaim the space as a museum. 

Currently the museum aims to enhance cultural curiosity and education through works of art. 

In 2023, The San Diego Museum of Art merged with the Museum of Photographic Arts. Though they are still technically two separate museums, they are housed in one location under the same ownership.

The Museum of Photographic Arts specifically inspires visitors to experience and capture the unnoticed. They hope to engage with a broad audience through presentation, collection, and the preservation of photography, film, and video. Most of their exhibitions are rotating, so you are able to experience something new each time you visit. 

A building with palm trees and a pool

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Timken Museum of Art, photography by Holly Miller.

Timken Museum of Art

Open 10am – 5pm Wed – Sun.

Showcasing one of the largest bodies of work from the old masters in the Putnam Collection, the Timken Museum of Art was created to present the best of European, American, and Russian art for the education and enjoyment of visitors to Balboa Park. It was established in 1965, founded by the Timken family and the Putnam sisters, and is known for housing the only Rembrandt inSan Diego, alongside many other notable artists including: Copley, Murillo and Clouet. It is also home to the portrait of Margaret Kemble Gage, who is believed to be the woman who triggered the Revolutionary War. 

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Institute of Contemporary Art, photography by Holly Miller.

Institute of Contemporary Art

Open 12pm – 5pm Thurs-Sun.

Closed Mon-Wed.

The San Diego Institute of Contemporary Art has strived to create an inclusive, living laboratory of art and ideas since its opening in 2021. A relatively new establishment, the Institute truly encourages collaboration and questioning in order to learn and appreciate contemporary art. Their core values (Be Relevant. Build Community. Provide Nurturing Opportunities for Artists. Present Contemporary Art. Be Unique. & Land Acknowledgement.) drive their vision and help to shape their exhibitions. They also offer classes and workshops that centre on the engagement with current issues and events and how they can be reflected and questioned through art. 

A wall full of colorful post-it notes

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San Diego History Centre, photography by Holly Miller.

San Diego History Centre 

Open 10am – 5pm Wed-Sun.

The San Diego History Centre, at its core, is a place for participatory activities and for the public to engage with the city’s history and culture. It encourages visitors of all ages to interact with the exhibitions and provide their own opinions of what they are experiencing throughout the museum. Having originally opened in 1928 in the Serra Museum, they relocated in 1982 to Balboa Park where they have become a staple for their unique portrayal of San Diego history, as well as their open research library and archive. Different from many traditional museums, it allows the public to truly have their say on San Diego’s history.


Holly Miller, student majoring in Modern History and minoring in Ancient History (Egypt & the Near East) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.


Cite this blog post
Bridging Editor (2023, October 24). Showcasing Museums of Balboa Park, San Diego. IFPH-FIHP. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pvqw

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