Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Guest Post by Nora Grant: Lessons from A Year of Pop Up Museums

This post was written by my colleague Nora Grant, Community Programs Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. 

“Pop Up” has become an international buzz term to describe ephemeral, experimental projects--from pop up restaurants to pop up boutiques--but a “Pop Up Museum” is still somewhat mystifying. How can you take something as substantial and precious as a museum and add a pop up twist?

There are many different models, including The Pop-Up Museum of Queer HistoryThe New York Met, SF Mobile Museum, and even a Pop Up Prison Museum.

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), we have been experimenting with a kind of pop up museum that is primarily created by the people who show up to participate. We’ve been popping up around Santa Cruz County for a little over a year and have had over 30 different pop up museums. Our primary goal for pop up museums is to bring people together in conversation through stories, art, history, and objects. Building off of Michelle DelCarlo’s pop up museum model, MAH pop up museums bring different people, perspectives, and projects to one central gathering place, enabling a democratic type of public curation.

What does this look like? Imagine a potluck in which instead of a dish, everyone brings an object and/or story to share with others. We choose themes and venues in collaboration with a community partner. People are invited to bring something on topic to share. When people show up, they write a label for their object and leave it on display. The museum lasts for a few hours on one day, with people coming and going as they please.

We favor this “potluck” approach because it:
  • Empowers people to share meaningful stories and objects with one another 
  • Enables the museum to step outside physical confines, and collaborate with community partners who wouldn’t ordinarily come to museum programs 
  • Opens up conversation as to what it means to be a museum and who can participate in making one 
  • Allows us to experiment with themes, content, and collaborations in an intimate yet short-lived, simple way 

In addition to pop up museums we facilitate locally in Santa Cruz, we also want to provide global support for anyone interested in having a pop up museum. We have created a free and downloadable pop up museum organizer’s kit. Check it out if you’re curious about choosing a strong theme, working with a collaborator, designing a portable structure, or tips for implementation.

Designing a pop up museum structure that is replicable by amateurs in diverse venues, appealing enough to attract a variety of participants, and portable is not easy. We continuously iterated our pop up museum format with different set up designs and language to realize a structure that satisfied these objectives. Having a lot of pop up museums and observing what did and didn’t work enabled us to learn more about our community while providing practical, real-life content for the organizer’s kit. 

While the kit offers a step-by-step guide for organizing pop ups, I want to share some of the more unexpected takeaways I’ve learned through this process.

Pop Up Outside the Museum 

It’s appealing to plan Pop Up Museums in conjunction with exhibits or museum events, but people are rightfully confused about a pop up museum taking place inside a museum. Like a café inside a restaurant, a museum inside a museum feels redundant rather than complementary. When framed by a larger museum, the pop up museum doesn’t embody as much individual vibrancy as it can’t be decontextualized from preexisting notions of said museum institution. When popping up in non-traditional exhibitory spaces, you cannot only prompt unexpected conversation, but also unite location and theme. For example, we had a pop up at an arboretum on Growth.

A Little Frame Goes A Long Way 

People like picture frames. They make the ordinary look special. They’re eye-catching. When we first started having pop up museums, we displayed objects on tables with black tablecloths, which had a simple yet flat aesthetic. So I bought vintage frames from a nearby thrift store, getting different shapes and sizes to accommodate various objects. The frames not only enhanced the aesthetic, but also visually communicated that the pop up museum serves as an open framework for the participant’s narratives. An empty frame is much more inviting than an empty table. Suddenly, people could pick and choose which frame they wanted, and design their own display within the communal show. Furthermore, open frames enable participants to physically touch exhibited content while demonstrating that the object still deserves special recognition.

Mix and Match Museum and Community Content 

One of the reasons we started the pop up museum was to challenge the idea that museums have an omnipresent authority over what is and what’s not “valuable.” We were surprised to learn that the pop up museum is actually most compelling when we exhibit objects from the museum’s collection alongside individuals’ objects. This bridges institutional and community-created content. By sharing the same space, you’re illustrating how a personal object can have just as much story value as a museum object. This mixing and matching ties into another conversation around what a “museum” means to people. People certainly have diverse views and relationships to museums, but I found that most of our collaborators were excited to partner with a museum because it validated their project or object. Something about the idea of a museum carries a lot of weight, and the Santa Cruz community has responded well to pop up museum collaborations. This is not to say that everyone loves the MAH or that everyone sees our pop up museum as museums for that matter. But we did notice that participants and collaborators were more attracted to having a pop up museum in partnership with the MAH rather than throwing one on their own.

Serial Pop Up Museums Sustain Interest 

Pop Up Museums are ephemeral, and because of their brevity, it can be difficult to maintain and sustain momentum for each one. We experimented with serial pop up museums and held six pop up museums thematically tied to an exhibition last fall. Held in collaboration with six different partners, taking place in six different locations, and occurring on consecutive Saturdays, each pop up expanded the overarching theme of the exhibit. Unlike other pop up museums which live for one day, serial pop up museums have the advantage of reaching a larger audience and encouraging repeat participation. 


What’s wonderful about the pop up museum is that it’s a flexible format for sharing. The changeability is part of its charm. We don’t know exactly how, or where, or with whom it will pop up. But like the blank labels or empty frames we leave out on the table, pop up museums will continue to invite and support public conversation, personal empowerment, and open-ended narratives.
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