Orange County abounds with specialty museums that offer a peek into the local culture and history.


hen we think about museums, we think big. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. But, there’s no need to travel that far afield or string together several hours in pursuit of cultural enrichment. Orange County offers a wealth of entertaining, bite-size learning experiences. From surf culture to vintage locomotives and aircraft, local museums afford glimpses into the region’s storied past that make it easier to understand what makes it tick today. Below is a cheat sheet of five museums to consider as we enter the school’s-out, family’s-intown, what-should-we-do-today season.

Marconi Automotive Museum


Car aficionado or not, it is difficult not to be in awe of founder Dick Marconi’s extensive collection of wheels. Meandering through this manufacturing facility-turned-museum, which also doubles as a luxury event space, visitors get an up-close-and-personal look at motor vehicles ranging from high-performance streetcars to vintage roadsters. “We have a large Ferrari collection, two of which are one of a kind,” said Marconi’s wife, CEO Priscilla “Bo” Marconi. “We feature American muscle cars, like the Ford Shelby GT, and we have a great collection of open wheel race cars. There’s something here for everybody.” Dick Marconi, a former race car driver, was inspired to build the museum in 1994, not only because of his passion for automobiles, but to give back to the community through the Marconi Foundation for Kids, which gives to charities that support local children in need of food, shelter, education and healthcare. During December, visitors who show up with an unwrapped gift for the annual toy drive tour the museum for free.

Balboa Island Museum & Historical Society

Newport Beach

Founded in 2000 when a Newport Beach local hatched the idea of repurposing an old Balboa Peninsula fire station, the Balboa Island Museum & Historical Society remains the city’s only museum. Recently relocated to 210 Marine Ave., the maritime museum provides an enriching window into Newport Beach history with exhibits including “John Wayne: At Home in SoCal, 1920–1979.” This curated show of photography and memorabilia showcases the mid-20th century actor’s life using images of him at home in the Bay Shores neighborhood of Newport Beach, as well as on his yacht, the Wild Goose, which is still available for cruises around the bay. Visitors will also enjoy “Surfing, the Wedge, History of Newport Beach,” an exhibition that includes vintage surf films, surfboards and other memorabilia specific to the area’s beach scene. The historical “It’s All About the River” exhibit explains how, dating back to the early 1500s, the Santa Ana River helped Newport Beach to develop into what it is today.

Lyon Air Museum

Santa Ana

The only aviation museum in Orange County, Lyon Air Museum is, appropriately, located on the western fringe of John Wayne Airport. Here, visitors have a chance to reach out and touch World War II-era aircraft, rare military vehicles, operational warbirds and related memorabilia. Events such as “History on the Flight Line” provide an intimate view of aircraft from the outside, while “Open Cockpit Day” allows us to climb inside the warbirds for a hands-on experience. From 1950s U.S. Army renaissance aircraft to 1940s military Jeeps, the museum rolls back the clock in order to understand history through transportation. A must-see is the B-17 Flying Fortress “Fuddy Duddy,” which was used as a VIP transport at the end of World War II. It carried U.S. Army Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became the 34th U.S. president. In civilian life, the plane worked as a fire bomber and was occasionally seen on screen in movies such as “The War Lover,” with Steve McQueen, and in the blockbuster “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Of the 12,731 built, “Fuddy Duddy” is one of just 12 operational B-17s remaining.

The Cessna Birddog (1950), Douglas Invader (1945) and Douglas Dakota (1941) saw action during decades of conflicts including World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Wetsuit pioneer Bev Morgan in Hawaii with a Pat Curren balsa gun. Photo credit: John Elwell

Surfing Heritage & Cultural Center

San Clemente

Located in this South County seaside community, the Surfing Heritage & Cultural Center leaves no doubt as to San Clemente’s importance to the history of surf culture. Running through the end of the year, “Joe Quigg: Design Alternatives” features artifacts from legendary surfboard designer and Southern California native Joe Quigg, who invented the modern longboard and the big wave board. January 2019 will mark the opening of the “Origins of Surfing” exhibit, which walks visitors through the sport’s surprisingly historic past, dating back 3,000 years to ancient Peruvian coastal cultures and other populations that had access to wave-producing coastlines. “Scale models and artifacts will demonstrate other waveriding vehicles and the tools that were used to construct them,” said Barry Haun, curator and creative director. The show will tell this fascinating story through paintings and historic text of various legends and lore associated with those cultures, most of which occurred prior to photography.

Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center


Boasting 25,000 square feet of multiuse space including the original Carnegie Library and a state-of-the-art gallery, Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center serves up a revolving menu of exhibits and events. Through Jan. 20, 2019, “Muzeo Express” celebrates the holiday season with an exhibition featuring model trains, miniature scenes and one-of-a-kind Walt Disney railroading memorabilia that pay homage to the history of locomotives in Southern California. In addition, the Carnegie Library, which was built in 1908 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, features “Anaheim: A Walk Through Local History,” a fixed exhibit curated by the Anaheim Museum prior to the creation of Muzeo in 2007. The show travels through history all the way to the present, displaying fossil findings and 19th-century agricultural tools as well as memorabilia from Disneyland’s beginnings, Angel Stadium of Anaheim and other landmarks.

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