He was a tireless worker, a constant adventurer and a steadfast advocate of bringing the world’s cultures and peoples to Santa Ana and Orange County.

Peter C. Keller, the president and CEO of the Bowers Museum for 31 years, died Tuesday night, Nov. 8, after dinner with his wife Signe Gallagher-Keller and putting in a full day of work preparing the just-opened exhibition, “Guo Pei: Art of Couture.” He was 75.

His passing came as a shock to Bowers staff, supporters and the larger Orange County arts community. He was just seen at the museum last week, helping to put finishing touches on “Guo Pei,” which officially opened Saturday and features more than 40 delicately crafted dresses by the accomplished Chinese fashion designer.

For many, Keller was the face and quintessential representative of the Bowers Museum.

“Peter was a perfectionist, a very hands-on boss and a visionary,” said Thuy Nguyen, chief financial officer and senior vice president at the Bowers. “Most of all, he was a very caring leader, always supporting and treating staff like family. I had the honor and privilege to work for him for almost 23 years and learned so much from him in that time.”

Keller helped secure and organize dozens of exhibitions, including “Secret World of the Forbidden City,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, “Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World,” “Terra Cotta Warriors,” “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasure of Ethiopia,” “Gods & Gifts: Vatican Ethnological Collection” and “Mummies: Treasures from the British Museum.”

Keller helped forge partnerships with major museums throughout the world, including the British Museum, the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei, the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Colombia, and many others.

He also oversaw two major building expansions, including the opening of the Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing in February 2007, which more than doubled the museum’s exhibition space.

“Peter had the unique ability to be everywhere, for everyone, all at once; and that makes the impact of losing him immeasurable. He was a constant, in and out of all of our offices every day,” said Kelly Bishop, the Bowers’ vice president of external affairs. “His omnipresence gave us all a sense of stability and strength that I’m already missing. He challenged everyone to think beyond the obvious answers, to raise the bar every day.”

Keller was born in 1947 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from George Washington University. He obtained a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, where he specialized in the geology of northern Mexico.

Prior to joining the Bowers, Keller was the director of education at the Gemological Institute of America, the world’s largest institution for gemology. He also spent nearly a decade at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, where he was curator of minerology and later associate director for public programs. He joined the Bowers Museum in 1991.

Keller was instrumental in the reopening of the Bowers in 1992, which included a restaurant, new offices and new permanent galleries.

He was also involved in the Orange County arts community, meeting with other museum directors, sharing ideas and encouraging them to keep going. Arts council Arts Orange County recognized him for his lifetime contributions and the transformation of the Bowers with a Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award in 2013.

“What an unimaginable loss to the OC arts community and to all of us in the museum world,” said Mary Platt, director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange. “Peter Keller was a friend to us all – and, as long as I can remember since I moved to OC – the steady and wise guiding hand at the Bowers Museum.

“During the pandemic, when the OC museum directors were meeting monthly on Zoom under the auspices of Arts Orange County, Peter generously shared ideas with us all – especially about holding online events and keeping patrons engaged while they couldn’t visit museums in person,” Platt said. “He will be greatly missed.”

The Bowers Museum honored Peter Keller, right, by naming an entrance to the museum for him when they celebrated Keller’s 30-year anniversary as president of the Bowers.

Spring 2021 marked the reopening of the Bowers after a year of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. It also marked the 30-year anniversary of Keller’s presidency. The museum celebrated the occasion in June 2021 by naming the Bowers Museum entrance after Keller.

At the time, Keller said, “After such a difficult year for the Bowers staff, our loyal visitors, and our global community, I’m humbled to look back at the 30 years that led us to the unified family we are today. In a lot of ways, we came out of the pandemic stronger than we’ve ever been.”   

Keller enjoyed traveling and often went abroad with board members and friends of the museum. He rode camels in the Sahara Desert with local philanthropist and honorary board member Dee Dee Anderson. Through the Bowers’ Explorers Club, he accompanied Ed Roski Jr., an honorary board member, 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,” Roski said.

Peter Keller in Rwanda. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Bowers Museum

Keller has traveled to China with board chairwoman Anne Shih more than 100 times in the last 25 years, the museum said in a statement. In 2022, he fulfilled a bucket-list adventure when he ventured to the South Pole with wife Signe and Roski.

The exact cause of Keller’s death is not yet known. On Nov. 9, Rick Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County, sent out an email to local arts leaders that said, “It appears that Peter was driving and had a heart attack. His wife Cygne [sic] was with him and was injured, but apparently not seriously.” 

Keller is survived by his wife Signe, children and grandchildren. He will be privately buried in his hometown and plans for a celebration of life are forthcoming, a statement said.

In lieu of flowers, Keller’s family asks that donations be made to the Bowers Museum at www.bowers.org/donate. These funds will be used to continue his legacy and grow his favorite permanent collection exhibition, “Spirits & Headhunters: Art of the Pacific Islands.”

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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