Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Radical, Simple Formula for Pop-Up Museums

Pop-Up Museum [n]:
  1. a short-term institution existing in a temporary space. 
  2. a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.
Over the past few years, there have been several fabulous examples of pop-up museums focusing on visitor-generated content. There was Jaime Kopke's Denver Community Museum, which existed for nine months in a Denver storefront in 2008-9 to celebrate visitors' creations. Maria Mortati runs the wonderful SF Mobile Museum, which roams the Bay Area showing mini-exhibits on evocative themes. The never-quite-opened National History Museum of the Netherlands created an innovative vending machine for historic objects, which traveled to festivals and urban centers for people to add their memories.

And now, Michelle DelCarlo has created a shockingly simple template for pop-up history museums focusing on personal objects of meaning. I strongly recommend you read her whole blog back to the beginning (it's not too onerous) and check out the evolution of her experimental format, which she has deployed in museums, libraries, and classrooms in the US and Australia.

Here's how it works:
  • Michelle partners with an organization, institution, or group. They come up with a theme, a date, and invite people to come.
  • On the prescribed date and time, people show up with personal objects on the theme. There is paper and pens to write labels. The objects and labels are laid out on tables.
  • People walk around, look at objects, and talk about them.
This project is beautiful in its simplicity. Any institution could do this with a few folding tables, pencils and paper, and a little bit of promotion.

There are a few things about this that I find incredibly interesting:
  • The experience is event-based. Michelle noted after early experiments that short timeframes work best for participants. These are museums that last not for a day or weekend or month but for two hours. The experience is the museum, and the objects are exciting because the people are there to share them. There's no forced sense that the objects should remain or be relevant beyond the event.
  • The goal is promoting conversations. Michelle has an explicit mission to "create conversations between people of all ages and walks of life." It's not fundamentally about the theme or the objects but the conversations that happen around them. (She also has an interesting take on the deliberate choice of "conversation" instead of "dialogue" as the goal.)
  • The design is humble--and radical. Look at photos of Michelle's pop-up museums, and you'll see a bunch of plastic tables with objects lined up on them. Because the experience is the key focus (and because of the highly temporary nature of the experience), the design costs are nil. There's no focused lighting or casework or beautiful labels. This is the natural extension of what some innovative exhibit designers--especially Kathleen McLean--have been advocating for: simple, flexible formats that put primacy on ideas and visitor contribution. It tracks almost exactly with Kathleen's Manifesto for the (r)evolution of Museum Exhibitions, all the way down to the snacks. And it looks totally unlike a standard museum. 
  • The format focuses on intimate experiences. Michelle's pop-ups reach twenty or so people each time, and that's ok. Particularly for small museums, which deal in magnitudes of tens instead of thousands, this format can provide the kind of unusual deep experience that can only happen at this scale. Smaller is not worse. It is different. This is a format that works for small.
Kudos to Michelle for her inspiring work. We can't wait to try out the format at our own small place, and in partnership with non-museums in our area.
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