Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s greatest attractions. Located right next to downtown San Diego and the airport, Balboa Park is best known for the San Diego Zoo. However, it is also home to many great museums. One of the most surprising museums for both kids and adults is the Museum of Man. This is our guide to San Diego’s Museum of Man in Balboa Park.
The Museum of Man building is the most distinguished building in Balboa Park. It opened in 1915 as the entry way of the Panama-California Exposition. The building itself is its own attraction with a unique architectural design and interesting sculptures. See a full description here. Part of the museum can include climbing to the top of the 200-foot California Tower.
Entry to the Museum of Man is $13 for adults 18 and over. Youth 6 to 17, seniors 62+ and active or retired military are $10. Seniors are $16.75. On the third Tuesday of every month (except December), San Diego County residents get in free.
The price does not include climbing the tower and it does not include the special exhibit on Cannibals. The Cannibals exhibit is an extra $6 and climbing the tower is an extra $10. Doing both is an extra $12 ($25 adults, $22 kids, seniors and military)
Coupons for the Museum of Man can be hard to find. Sometimes Groupon will run great deals, but we have not seen one in some time. If you are in San Diego for 3 or more days you may want to consider a Go San Diego Card.
The Go San Diego Card allows visitors access to up to 40 attractions for either 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. This is not a cheap option and we generally recommend it for 3 days or more where it is $209 adults/$189 children age 3 to 12. A 7-day pass is a very good value at $299/$269. The 3-day or more passes include admission to the very big attractions like SeaWorld and Legoland. If you do get a Go San Diego Card it is very possible to do the San Diego Zoo and several Balboa Park museums in a single day.
The Go San Diego Card option we recommend to visitors just in town for a day or two is the build your own pass. With the build your own pass you add 2 or more attractions to the pass and save 20% off the gate price for each attraction.
If you are a resident, or frequent visitor to San Diego, you might consider a membership option. Annual membership to the Museum of Man is $45 for an individual, $20 for students, and $60 for a family of 2 adults and children under 18 (the family membership also includes two guest passes). Members get a 10% discount at the museum store. Climbing the California Tower is still $10.
As our children have started to enter their tween and teenage years we have upgraded to the Balboa Explorer Park Pass. At $229 a year for 2 adults and 4 children this is a great deal more than a Museum of Man annual pass. However, it gets you into 16 Balboa Park museums. You should note the Balboa Park Explorer Pass does not include the special exhibits or discounts of a membership just to the Museum of Man.
Visitors to San Diego can look into getting a 7-day Balboa Park Explorer Park Pass for $57 adults, $30 children age 3 to 12. This pass allows for unlimited admission to all museums for 7-days. This is a much better deal than a one-day pass which is $46 adults/$27 children and only allows access to 5 museums.
The exhibits at the Museum of Man change on a frequent basis. This article is current as of summer 2018.
The BEERology exhibit is on your right as you enter the museum. This exhibit explores the history of beer making among many cultures. Of course, of all the exhibit, this is the one that appeals more to adults than children. You learn interesting facts, such as the oldest beer was found in China 3000 years ago. If you sign up for the mailing list the museum offers special beer tastings.
Our children skip over BEERology and make a direct beeline to the left and the Monsters exhibit.
The Monsters! exhibit is all about monsters throughout history. It is very interactive, but not at all scary. There is a magnetic wall where you can build your own monster and an interactive table shows you how to defeat specific monsters. There is a description of what monsters have been associated with what geographic areas.
For me it was is interesting to see how the manticore emerged from Persian culture, Slavic culture produced the Leshy, and Japan’s Godzilla was inspired by the nuclear era. There were also some bones from extinct animals that lived during the dinosaur and Ice Age. These large bones helped inspire legends around monsters.
For children 5 and under there is a separate monster themed playroom to the left side by the entrance.
The Maya exhibit was of interest to me because I have been to the Yucatan peninsula several times. The exhibit has several large casts of large Mayan monuments in Guatemala. This is one of the oldest part of the museum, having been on exhibit since 1915.
There are lots of additional Mayan artifacts and a huge mural of the Mayan jungles. These artifacts are from the height of Mayan culture toward the end of the first millennium A.D. The museum notes that the castings made in 1915 are used by researchers today because they are in better shape than the original.
The PostSecret exhibit is a temporary exhibit that will be around through 2020. It is probably the most unique exhibit in the museum. The idea is that people write their deepest darkest secrets on anonymously on a postcard and submit it.
There are thousands of postcards and visitors can submit their own. There is a warning that the exhibit may be disturbing, as many of these secrets are highly personal. If you wanted to you could probably spend all day reading the various postcards.
One example that caught my attention was the teacher who wrote how she once flunked a student and made him repeat a grade so she could flirt with his father for another year. Of course, I wondered how many people are making stuff up simply to get a rise from other visitors.
Living With Animals
On the second floor right next to PostSecrets is one of our favorite exhibits. Living with Animals explores man’s 15,000 year history with domestic animals. It examines animals from 3 perspectives: as pests, as pets and as food.
The pet part is of course great fun, while the food part may make some people vegetarians. There are lots of warnings about commercial processing of animals. Behind a screen you can see videos of chickens, cows and pigs being processed. These videos are not bloody and do not involve actual killing. Nevertheless, they are clearly labeled as disturbing.
A more fun part of the animals as food part is a diner with an interactive display that shows main dishes from 5 different countries over different times over the past 100 years. For example, you can compare a typical meal in Mexico today versus 100 years ago (or another period such as a 1960 meal).
The pests portion has a great deal of information about rats, cockroaches and other pets. The highlight was an enormous display of mouse traps. One cool activity was where you had to spot snakes versus caterpillars in photos. For humans it is much easier to spot the snakes because extinct tells us they are threatening.
Living With Animals opened in 2017 and, like POstSecrets, is scheduled to run three years.
Race: Are We So Different
This exhibit examines different races and the history of racism. This includes Inter+Face, an exhibit of three busts from the original 1915 exhibit on race. Obviously a great deal of attitudes about race has changed over the past 100 years. This exhibit describes those changes and includes an example of how different people would have been classified under the U.S. census over the years.
This exhibit is another temporary one that is on display at several museums. This is a pretty weighty subject for children. The American Anthropological Association who created the exhibit has interactive games and activite son their website for children age 10 and over.
The Egypt exhibit is one of the museum’s oldest with gifts from the Egyptian Exploration Society dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Of course, kids love mummies and there are quite a few of those. Some of the items have been taken off exhibit because it was found they were removed without permission of the deceased’s family.
Crossing the bridge over Balboa Park takes you to the Adventure Kids in Egypt part of the exhibit. Here there are plenty of activities for children. This includes going on an “archeological expedition,” dressing up in costumes, building pyramids from wooden blocks and other activities. There are also some interactive computer games which can be hard to pull your kids away from.
Kumeyaay: Native California
Located in the hallway next to the Egypt exhibit is the exhibit on the Native Americans that lived in the San Diego area before the Spanish arrived. This is of particular interest to us because we do a great deal of camping and hiking and often see these old sites in person.
There are all kinds of artifacts showing how the Kumeyaay raised their children, acquired food and made baskets. School children in California learn about this as part of California history. A visit to the Museum of Man really helps put this into perspective.
There is also a constellation chart on the ceiling showing how older civilizations viewed the stars.
The Museum of Man hosts many special events throughout the year. You can find a calendar here. There are also educational programs for all ages. The Museum of Man usually offers summer camps but did not do so in 2018.
Of course, climbing the tower is an experience in itself. There is also the temporary Cannibal experience. Unfortunately this exhibit is closing in 2018 so we haven’t covered it here.
Overall the Museum of Man is a great experience for all ages. This is not an all day activity, but you should probably set aside at least two hours to get the full experience.