Sunday, December 06, 2009

Guest Post: The Denver Community Museum

This post was written by Jaime Kopke, the founder/director of the Denver Community Museum, a pop-up community-generated institution that ran from Oct 2008-April 2009. This post shares her reflections on the project, its design, and its impact.

The Denver Community Museum (DCM) was a grassroots operation in almost every sense. There was no budget, no staff, no permanent location, no Board of Directors and no collection. It was me, a handful of occasional volunteers, some very kind local business partners and a city full of participants.

The DCM was a temporary, pop-up museum which ran from October 2008 - April 2009 in an unused storefront in downtown Denver. From the beginning, the museum stated that it would exist for less than year in a well-trafficked area of the city (possibly in multiple locations). It was, in effect, an institution with an expiration date.

There was no agenda or angle in setting up the DCM, the idea was simply to create an awesome place for the community to share their stories. I was inspired by pop-up shops I had seen in NY along with a community museum there called the City Reliquary. Over a year I began to wonder how to combine the two ideas and the DCM was the result. The DCM was a place that was part science experiment. It aimed to challenge the traditional notions of a museum: permanent vs. temporary, past vs. present and fact vs. fiction.

The contents for each month-long exhibition were entirely community generated. A series of projects were announced, serving as calls for participation, which were open to all Denver area residents. These challenges posed a creative test, which individuals could interpret and solve as they pleased. Every month a new challenge was issued and the previous challenges’ results were displayed within the museum. As a result, each month a new community collection was created to be put on display.

While each challenge had a specific question/theme, the form of the artifacts were left up to the individual participants. Whether it was a homemade object, written story, audio clip or drawing, everything was accepted - unless it was was horribly offensive (which never occurred). It was free to participate in and to visit. It did not matter if the memories/stories represented were real or imaginary. There were no size limits, age limits or skill level required and nothing was for sale. This open process may have overwhelmed some, but many, many more found it liberating. Visitors would see a globe painted by a five-year old next to a professional artist’s embroidery and be inspired to create their own item. By far the most important elements though were the stories people shared. Each participant wrote their own text describing the process, meaning or anything else they liked. Unlike many museums that just ask for comments or set a fun little “activity corner,” the DCM gave over complete control and that’s part of the reason it worked.

But not to be led astray, relying solely on specifically-made artifacts to fill your museum is not easy path. Challenges were only announced one month in advance and there was less than a week between shows. Participants would drop off/pick up their items on the last Friday/Saturday of the month, giving me approximately four days to type/print the exhibition text, mount info cards, lay out displays, move shelving etc., set up any participatory elements and organize the opening, which occurred the following Friday or Saturday. I never knew what my contents were until it was time to create the display.

When I imagined the museum before I began, I had fantastic visions of walls filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful handmade artifacts, each sharing a special story. While beautiful handmade objects did come in, sometimes what I got was a big brown ball of soap. A ball of soap dropped off “by a friend” in a paper sack with no information other than a name. When you open the doors to everything, you have to stick with it, but there is no doubt more submissions would have been helpful. If I were to do this project again, the biggest adjustment would be to marketing and outreach. I needed a lot more of it. A lot.

That being said, each show (luckily) had about 30-40 artifacts/participants - though some were done in groups as well (mostly schools). While each challenge always brought in new participants, there were also several very dedicated repeat submitters. Though I usually had enough artifacts to make an interesting exhibition, the size and form of these artifacts was constantly varying. To help fill in the blanks, I often added participatory pieces which allowed the visitors to take an active role. As a project that was based on community sharing, turning the museum into an open platform was essential. There was never an exhibit where the visitor simply viewed and read. The shows always included something that you could touch, take...or most importantly leave behind.

These elements varied from doodled on post-it notes to wishes stuffed in bottles. One of the most successful of these installations happened during the ’29’ exhibition. The challenge asked participants to create an artifact related to them at age 29 (whether that be future or past). In addition to the pieces submitted we set-up an extensive timeline wrapping around the room, weaving in and out of the displays. A typewriter was set-up in the middle of the room with a stack of index cards, asking people to share what they were/will be doing at age 29. The response was amazing. Almost every visitor typed up a card and added it to the wall. Not only did people genuinely enjoy thinking about the question and sifting through their memories, on several occasions complete strangers ended up reminiscing together. A group of three friends realized they were all 29 the year which September 11th took place; their talking aloud brought two other visitors into the conversation and the five of them ended up sitting down and sharing their memories of that year. I was shocked...and very happy.

The magic however, did not always occur naturally. I often had to introduce the participatory elements to get visitors to join in. This wasn’t really out of place since I greeted almost everyone who came in to tell them about the museum. I usually just left it with, “and there are parts where you can do/add things so be sure to look around.” That usually did it. I am a firm believer in people’s desire to explore and be surprised. If someone asked I was more than happy to give them more information, but mostly I left people to discover things on their own. Some participated, others did not.

One interesting outcome was that as time went on, some participants started designing more and more interactive artifacts all on their own. They had either submitted before, or visited and experienced the nature of the space firsthand. By the end, I had participants giving me directions on how to display their pieces and what people could do with them. In terms of visitors, I never really counted (maybe I should have), but I would have to guess that each show roughly 150-200 people stopped by, with most of the activity centered around the openings.

I think the reason the DCM worked was because it was informal and honest. We have all seen museums that try a little too hard with their interactive elements, jazzing them up with highly polished graphics and fancy displays. The DCM was approachable and had no expectations. Things did not have to fit a pre-conceived space, they weren’t confined to a bulletin board and nothing was forced. There wasn’t a separate area for “community submissions”. I also had to let the little things go. Some people never submitted the story to go along with their artifact, no matter how many harassing emails I sent. Some people dropped items off the DAY OF the opening. Many more surprised me with the most enchanting and heartfelt objects/stories - far beyond what I could ever have dreamed. The DCM was grassroots, but it may not have worked otherwise. Everyone played a part and that part was equal for everyone.

Jaime would like to open up the comments to any questions you may have, please feel free to fire away. Also, Jaime will be speaking at the next AAM conference in May 2010 during a panel titled “On the Road: Nomadic, Pop-up and Ephemeral Museum Experiences.” You can reach her directly via denvercommunitymuseum @ gmail . com

6 comments, add yours!:

jlevinso said...

Hi Jamie,

I'm interested to know what kinds of outreach you did employ to get submissions. How did you spread the word about the DCM -- traditional sources like newspapers, use of the website, etc? Or did you find that it was more a word of mouth venture -- which drew more interest the longer it went on because participants submitted multiple times and brought their friends? Do you have plans to launch DCM again?

This sounds like a truly amazing project -- a great way to find new ways to engage. Thanks for the guest post!

Jaime said...

Hi jlevinso,

Thanks for the note! When I started the DCM I had lived in Denver for a few years and knew a fair amount of local organizations, individuals and businesses that I thought would like to get involved. I started by sending notices to every blog and arts-based organization/person I could find an email address for. I also announced the project at a local Pecha Kucha Night - an event regularly attended by 150-200 local creatives.

I had zero budget to work with, and as such, never spent a dime on marketing. I used a free web platform, indexhibit, to make a basic site. I made my own fliers on Illustrator each month and emailed them out. I also printed a handful to keep at the museum for visitors to pick up (generously photocopied for free by a friend on the down-low at work).

Due to the sudden timing of the physical space becoming available (these are the rewards and risks of a pop-up location), I did not have much time to do the initial marketing. I still had a large press list etc. at the launch, but there were people I never heard back from and I did not have the time to try and track those folks down. As a result, one of Denver’s biggest newspapers never covered the DCM events, but the city’s very popular free weekly paper and several well-known local magazines constantly gave me free press.

I had an email list in the space and almost everyone who visited signed up for it. As the project grew, this list got pretty large, but I always sent the info to the press each month regardless. Word-of-mouth was definitely a huge help. Friends brought friends to the openings and encouraged them to make something the next month. And luckily many of them they did.

Right until the end, I was constantly discovering new groups that could have been included from the beginning. I wish I could have done more outreach before the project launched, I am positive this would have resulted in more submissions (and visitors).

I am definitely interested in opening new versions of the DCM in other cities/towns, anyone have a venue?!

William Moreno said...

Another variation of this idea is The Passerby Museum project. A tad more structured - but a fascinating exercise in "instant community archeology."

The Passerby Museum, jointly curated by Maria Alos and Nicholas Dumit Estevez, was actually begun in New York City in 2002. Alos and Estevez have presented their work internationally-and in Claremont, CA most recently. The pair invite ordinary folks, especially people who might not visit an art museum, to turn over personal objects for display, very often what is in their pockets. Its current manifestation includes over 3,000 objects. Each object is equal in value to the other.

Emily said...

Some friends in Atlanta have started an artists collective. They recently hosted their first show in an abandoned building that was donated to them... and I see a few similarities in your efforts.

I wonder if there is some opportunity for overlap or a new DCM as you've proposed. The group is largely arts workers and they have a pretty extensive reach of contacts.

I'd love to put you in touch if you/they are interested.

Jaime said...

Hi Emily,

Sure! I'm in England until at least next summer, but it doesn't hurt to pass along info - they can reach me at denvercommunitymuseum(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thanks and Happy Holidays,

ps I like your site!

Kelly C. Porter said...


What a fascinating and lovely project. There are so many things to like about the concept and the grassroots promotion of it. I think, too, that there are some pieces of your approach that larger museums would do well to take note of. Here I am thinking specifically about empowering people to author with the content of an exhibit, and leave their mark where they feel it's appropriate . . . not just in some kiosk in the corner relegated to "visitor comments." I've been increasingly delighted by acts of public annotation very much like what you described in your "29" exhibit: where relics, comments and stories of visitors become seamlessly interwoven with structured content. Great job.