Peter C. Keller traveled the world in search of adventure. He brought that same spirit to the Bowers Museum, which he led for over 31 years with this distinct goal: to connect the Santa Ana museum to the world — and the world to the museum.
Keller died Tuesday, Nov. 8. He was 75.
Family, friends and colleagues are mourning the unexpected loss of the Bowers CEO and president, who they credit for growing the museum over the decades with a diverse array of exhibits and programs.
“His vision was to open the museum up and connect it to the world,” said Julie Perlin Lee, the director of the Laguna Art Museum who worked with Keller for 12 years at Bowers and called him her mentor.
At the time Keller arrived at Bowers in 1991, the museum was focused on local and regional history “and was trying to find its way,” she said. “His explorer spirit led that organization to greatness. And it was fun.”
“This is a huge loss,” Perlin Lee said.
Under his leadership, Bowers underwent two major building expansions. Keller “lifted the museum to a world-class internationally celebrated institution, focused on presenting fine art and culture from around the world,” said a statement from the institution.
Alongside Anne Shih, the organization’s chairwoman of the board of governors, Keller brought in more than 50 critically acclaimed exhibitions, the museum noted. Those include the Terracotta Warriors from China and a mummies exhibit from the British Museum.
Keller collaborated with some of the world’s most important museums to bring “the treasures of the world” to Orange County, Perlin Lee said.
And in the process, he was generous to fellow art enthusiasts, helping boost the careers of many, said Perlin Lee, who started at Bowers as a volunteer and left as vice president of collections and exhibitions.
Santa Ana sculptor Elizabeth Turk also spoke about Keller’s approachable demeanor and the “incredible gift” he gave artists like herself by sharing contacts and information.
“He was such an inspiration,” she said. “He shared a curiosity for the world.”
Keller’s adventurous spirit began early when as a young boy he was excited to find arrowheads, Perlin Lee said. “He had an explorer spirit in him” that took him on travels across the world, she said.
In a message posted on the museum’s website last March, Keller wrote: “For those who know me well, they know that there are few places in the world that I haven’t gone, or cultures that I haven’t experienced.”
Keller was born in 1947 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, he earned degrees in geology and earth science from George Washington University and the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Ph.D.
Before joining the Bowers in 1991, Keller served as the director of education at the Gemological Institute of America. He also worked at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
In the spring of 2021, Keller celebrated his 30th year with the museum.
On his last day alive, he put in a full day at Bowers, preparing for this weekend’s opening of an exhibition featuring the couture art of designer Guo Pei. After work, he had dinner with his wife, Signe Keller.
Keller is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.
There are plans for a private burial in his hometown and future plans for a celebration of life in Orange County. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to the museum in his name.
Perlin Lee, his former colleague and friend, said Keller will be remembered for his vision — “enriching lives through the world’s greatest cultures.”
“I can’t think of another person who did so much to bring so many people across the world together.”