The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art isn't aworld-class museum or even a great museum, but what it does really, really well is display for our reptilian brains great gleaming hunks of gold and rubies the size of Indiana Jones' hat. Treasures. They bring us great, shiny treasures we've somehow been wired to covet or at least to coo over. And I'm sure when the Bowers' exhibit of mummies opens in April, they'll have all the golden effluvia you'd expect thereof.
But right now, with "Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality—Treasures From the British Museum"? Well, it's got treasures right there in the title, and yet . . . not really, no, unless you count film stills of Gina Lollobrigida in the bath.
"Queen of Sheba" is a worthless exercise, its treasures comprising some Sabaen (that's "Sheban") incense burners and some funerary steles (that aren't even gold!) and some quite lovely Victorian etchings of the Queen of Sheba's story (and a couple of absolute beauties going back to late 1500s Persia), plus the aforementioned film stills. That's all well and good: the film stills would be delightful hanging in a confirmed bachelor's hallway, and the etchings are really lovely and all entirely the same (Solomon, columns, Rubensian Sheba). But then you get to Sir Edward John Poynter's The Queen of Sheba's Visit to King Solomon—pretty much the masterwork of the Queen of Sheba sub-subgenre, a photo of which accompanies the didactics and all the brochures—and they've got it hanging for the world to see printed on aplastic tarp.
It would be like me exhibiting Raphaels in the form of the posters I had in my dorm room.
Embarrassing isn't the word.
The Bowers and the British Museum answer the question (that they pose) "Did the Queen of Sheba really exist?" with a cheery "Couldn't tell you!" But they do have some interesting info on the empires that sprouted up in the frankincense trade, plus frankincense you can buy for cheap in the gift shop. Which should, along with some stone altars and funeral masks, completely make up for the chintziness of the collection (excepting that beautiful Persian work) and the complete omission of Rastafari and Haile Selassie and precisely one (1) depiction of the Queen of Sheba being, you know, black.
I, however, have some heavenly Raphaels I've been just dying to show.
"QUEEN OF SHEBA: LEGEND AND REALITY—TREASURES FROM THE BRITISH MUSEUM" AT THE BOWERS MUSEUM OF CULTURAL ART, 2002 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 567-3600. OPEN TUES.-SUN., 11 A.M.-4 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 13. $8-$14.