Category: Trends

Pop Goes the Museum

Don't be scared! Not all pop-ups are as creepy as clowns.Photo courtesy

Don’t be scared! Not all pop-ups are as creepy as clowns.
Photo courtesy

Temporary is the new permanent,” says Allison Arieff in the Atlantic Cites blog. By now we’ve all encountered the “pop-up” phenomenon: a short-term, temporary activity (food service, retail, display, installation, performance) in an otherwise dormant space.This is the phenomenon in which “vacant lots, abandoned buildings, parking spaces, and even slivers of pavement, have been transformed by prudent partnerships between governments, artists, architects, and designers, and volunteers motivated to improve their own communities.”

The trend has been around awhile . Retailers were trying pop-up approaches by the late 90s, and as Wikipedia points out, it’s really another iteration of seasonal stores like Halloween shops and holiday markets. Even museums have been “popping up” special exhibition shops at gallery exits for a long time (to mixed reviews). Temporary displays are old technology, rooted in fairs and expos.

But the imaginative application of the pop-up idea to community life – in a small-scale, DIY way – has been a significant development during the ‘oughts and early ‘teens. From Pittsburgh to PDX, pop-up shops featuring locally made goods by startup designers  are moving into vacant spaces on downtown streets. The raging success of food trucks, noted in AAM’s 2012

Station restaurant in Portsmouth, NH, popped in a defunct gas station for the summer of 2012.

Station restaurant in Portsmouth, NH, popped in a defunct gas station for the summer of 2012.

TrendsWatch (PDF), testifies to the utility of pop-up culture. Skipping the overhead and fixed infrastructure of a restaurant, food trucks inhabit and energize spaces with compact, discrete events, spawning clusters of community that follow their movements. In New York, pop-up cafes take over parking spaces, and pop-up restaurants deliver dining experiences as short as a single night or as long as a season.

The concept of the “pop-up” moves us toward more improvisational, less committed relationships with space, time, and infrastructure. It encourages risk-taking and experimentation and delivers  serendipitous delight. Pop-ups can even revitalize disused or derelict space, lending vivid life and activity to ‘dead’ spots.

Perhaps most importantly for museums,pop-ups provide access to new kinds of content and experience, and generate participation from new audiences. Michelle DeCarlo’s Pop-Up Museum travels the country, partnering with organizations to produce community-curated displays and conversations. Nina Simon called the project

“beautiful in its simplicity” and adapted at the Santa Cruz MAH, which she directs. As demonstrated by the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, a pop-up can assert voice and visibility for previously excluded communities. The Museum of Durham History hosted one seemingly inspired by DeCarlo’s. The Gowanus Museum, run by Proteus Gowanus, is a pop-up used to brainstorm, plan and prototype a museum that doesn’t exist yet.

Pop-Up Museum on "Objects of Conflict." Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Pop-Up Museum on “Objects of Conflict.” Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

You can track emerging efforts like these, across all economic sectors and around the globe, with the site and newsletter We Are Pop-Up HQ.

As Arieff says in her Atlantic Cities piece, “the best of these efforts are designed to enhance daily life, not promote product or ‘lifestyle’.” Sort of like museums. If we’re serious about community engagement, we can use our abundant resources of staff talent and imagination to bring surprising new life to spaces outside the museum, which should also bring new people into partnership with us.

Everything really is temporary. For institutions dedicated to preserving stuff in perpetuity, that might seem like a discouraging idea. But the pop-up ethos can help us work in nimbler, more responsive ways, and try approaches we wouldn’t use if we imagined they had to last forever. What can we do if we can forget about permanence (temporarily)? What if we freed ourselves from the constraints of galleries and historic structures, and imagined how our content, objects and ideas could serve as interventions into our communities’ lives?