Peter Keller Has Led Bowers Museum for 30 Years

Showcasing the world’s treasures for 30 years, Peter Keller says he’s just getting started.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Most profiles start with an anecdote about their subject, a story that helps illuminate and illustrate who they are. But in the case of Peter Keller, who has traveled the world in his 30 years as the president of Bowers Museum, it’s impossible to narrow down the stories to one.

We could go with the time he enjoyed the view of Mexico City while atop the dome of the historic pilgrimage site Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe while working on the “Virgin of Guadalupe: Images in Colonial Mexico” exhibit. (“I’ve been on roofs in lots of places,” he says.) Or there’s his story about trying to write condition reports on artifacts for the show, “Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China’s Imperial Palace.” The former Imperial Library didn’t have power or heating, and there wasn’t enough light to see properly, so Keller took the precious objects outside to examine them on tables set up in the snow.

Terra Cotta I & II, 2008

We could ask for a story from someone who knows him, but everyone has at least one Peter Keller adventure to share. Local philanthropist and honorary Bowers board member Dee Dee Anderson mentions camels in the Sahara Desert, a Niger River ride, and ladies of the night in Tibet, although she says those stories are better shared in person. Ed Roski Jr., a Bowers honorary board member who met Keller when he was the deputy director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, recalls one of their trips as members of The Explorers Club, journeying up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea “on a raft made of two dugout canoes and a tarp cover, exploring untouched villages as far as we could go.” Anne Shih, chairwoman of Bowers’ board of governors and cultural ambassador, has traveled to China with Keller more than 100 times in the past 25 years; that alone could fill several articles.

So perhaps it’s best to focus on an anecdote that takes place closer to home: “We placed a vinyl linoleum floor over our historic tile for one of our exhibits, and when it was over, we had to remove the flooring,” says Victoria Gerard, the vice president of programs and collections at Bowers. “I have a photo of Peter down on the floor, scraping off the vinyl. He’s not the kind of leader who doesn’t participate in what needs to get done.”

Pieces from the exhibit “Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World”

Bringing the world to O.C.

Under Keller’s leadership, Bowers exhibits have focused on everything from Fabergé gems to Chuck Jones doodles to Beethoven’s handwritten scores. But it’s the major international exhibits that have established the museum’s reputation.

“He has transformed it into a nationally recognized institution of the arts that reflects the unique culture and values of our Santa Ana community,” says Vicente Sarmiento, the mayor of Santa Ana (which owns the museum’s building and land). “Bowers has helped enhance the local arts experience by bringing world-famous exhibits that enrich and inspire our residents in Santa Ana, and visitors throughout the county.”

Keller developed his global perspective during a career that started with a volunteer role at the Smithsonian

and included “just about every position you could hold in the museum world.” When he arrived at Bowers in 1991, the museum was about to reopen after being closed for three years. It had added 65,000 square feet of exhibit space. Keller had to figure out how to fill that space.

“One of the things I got into at the Natural History Museum was taking a more global view and focusing on quality—bringing the world’s greatest treasures to the people of Southern California,” he says. “I went after the idea of partnering with the great museums of the world, and that’s been our focus.”

Since the museum reopened in 1992, it has hosted more than 150 special exhibits (and added on another 30,000 square feet in 2007). Those exhibits have spanned the globe: “Egyptian Treasures from the British Museum,” “Sacred Gold: Pre-Hispanic Art of Colombia,” “Gods & Gifts: Vatican Ethnological Collection,” and “The Holy Land: David Roberts, Dead Sea Scrolls, House of David Inscription,” to name a few. 

Xian, China 2008

But Bowers is perhaps best known for its Asian-themed exhibits. Keller credits Shih for her instrumental role. “I had been trying to get a Taiwanese jade exhibit and failed three times,” he says. “She came on our board and asked if she could do anything to help. I told her, ‘Get me the jade exhibit.’ She got it two years later, and it became our first traveling show.”

The duo has since teamed to bring major shows to Orange County. “Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor” drew visitors from all 50 states and spawned a sequel. Almost 200 sacred artifacts were displayed in “Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World.” “Secrets of the Silk Road” included three Caucasian mummies that had been found in western China.

“Peter is a true cultural art expert. With his leadership and experience, we have brought amazing exhibits from all around the world to Orange County,” says Shih, noting that Bowers has received the highest national recognition from the American Alliance of Museums. “I respect him tremendously and learned a lot from him.”

Adds Anderson, “He encourages those around him to learn a little bit more, to roll with the punches a little bit more, and to know you have a little bit more to offer than you think.”

A People Person

While Keller relishes the globetrotting nature of his job, the people he meets are more important to him than the places he has been. Someone who’d rather talk than text, Keller has enjoyed beers in the pub with the keeper of antiquities at The British Museum, discussed history with the director of the Museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors, and combed through the Vatican archives with the director of its Ethnological Museum.

“It’s all about developing relationships and friendships,” Keller says. “Once you’re friends, anything can happen, and that’s what makes the job fun for me.”

However, it’s difficult to maintain those interpersonal connections during a pandemic that prohibits travel. COVID-19 also shut down the museum to visitors, so Keller and his team pivoted to digital presentations of programs at Bowers and its Kidseum two blocks away. He hopes Bowers reopens before its two current exhibits have to move on.

But even a pandemic won’t stop Keller from setting goals for the future. He talks about putting another addition on the museum. He’s working on potential future exhibits with the Royal Geographical Society and the Vatican; he’d also like to do another show on gemstones, a passion that dates back to his Ph.D. in geology. And he can’t wait to travel again and rekindle his relationships around the world. It sounds like a full slate for someone who has been on the job as long as he has. As Keller puts it, “I always say it’s just been my first 30 years.”

Keller with part of the exhibit “Secrets of the Silk Road,” 2010

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