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Bowers Museum Hires First Chief Curator Since 2005

Like the new president, Tianlong Jiao has both an academic and museum administration background.

Tianlong Jiao is the new chief curator at the Bowers Museum. Photo courtesy of Bowers Museum

The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has appointed Tianlong Jiao as its new chief curator, starting this Friday, Dec. 1. The hire is an important step for the museum, which has been without a senior or full-time curator since April 2005, when Armand Labbé passed.

Jiao has more than two decades of experience in museum curation and administration, both in the United States and Hong Kong. He has served as head curator at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, head and curator of the Asian art department at the Denver Art Museum, head and curator of the Chinese art department at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and chairman of the anthropology department at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii.

At the Bowers Museum, Jiao will manage the permanent collection, which comprises more than 100,000 objects; oversee loans and traveling objects; helm new acquisitions; and refresh onsite permanent galleries. A special emphasis will be placed under his stewardship on Asian-featured exhibitions, a domain in which the Bowers Museum has particular strengths.

“I am thrilled to join the Bowers Museum family,” Jiao said in a statement issued by the museum. “The museum’s world-class exhibitions and collections have been a great inspiration to me, and I look forward to contributing to the future of this ‘best museum’ in Orange County.”

The Bowers has regularly landed on “best of” lists compiled by area media outlets and websites.

Jiao holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University, a master’s degree in archaeology from the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, and a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from Beijing University. He has done extensive research in Chinese archaeology, art history, Pacific archaeology and Japanese ceramics. He has authored seven books and over 100 academic papers, both in English and Chinese, the Bowers said in a news release.

In 2007, he was the recipient of the Philip and Eugenia Cho Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Asian Studies for the book, “The Neolithic of Southeast China” (Cambria Press, 2007).

Jiao recently edited the exhibition catalog “Grand Gallop: Art and Culture of the Horse” for the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which was awarded “Best Art and Design” at the 2023 Hong Kong Publishing Biennial Awards.

“I was very impressed by his curatorial background, particularly in the field of Polynesian art. It helps to have someone who’s spent a lot of time managing that sort of material,” said Seán O’Harrow, president and CEO of the Bowers, who started his new position in August. The Bowers has a permanent exhibition, “Spirits and Headhunters: Art of the Pacific Islands” on view in its Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing, completed in February 2007. 

In an interview with Culture OC earlier this month, O’Harrow said hiring a senior curator was his top priority. A lot can happen in 18-plus years without a chief curator, including possibly losing track of items, missing judgment on the value and appropriateness of certain objects and an FBI raid in 2008 seeking items alleged to have been obtained illegally. 

“It’s good to bolster our ranks with someone who has experience in museums,” O’Harrow said Wednesday. “As an archaeologist, he has experience in caring for fragile material and cataloging it in databases. It’s important to be working closely with a chief curator to make sure we address all the opportunities and challenges and questions. We want to cover all our bases, and make sure we’re legally compliant.”

O’Harrow added that Jiao will also be working on creating traveling exhibitions that will help bolster the Bowers’ name and reputation across the country and world. Jiao also has family living in Southern California, O’Harrow said.

Jiao’s appointment marks a significant moment for the Bowers Museum, which has relied on outside curators and traveling collections for most of its exhibitions since the death of Labbé. The Bowers’ longtime president, Peter C. Keller, who was actively involved in many facets of running the museum, unexpectedly passed in November 2022 after 31 years at the helm.

“With the recent addition of our new president and CEO, Dr. Seán O’Harrow, and now Tianlong Jiao, I see the promise of an exciting new era for our institution becoming reality,” said Anne Shih, chairwoman of the Bowers’ Board of Governors, in a statement.

The Bowers is Orange County’s largest museum, with an annual budget between $5 million and $6 million. The Bowers typically receives more than $1 million from the city of Santa Ana each year for maintenance and operating costs. The city owns the 158,008-square-foot building and property.

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