Pop Ups: Disrupting the Idea of “Museum”



By Gretchen Jennings and Monica Montgomery

 At the start, many of us were curious about why the project was designed as a partnership with a library instead of another museum.  However, by the end of the project, we not only understood why, but also realized it would not have worked any other way.  

Student report.

Students set up posters at DCPL to guide visitors to the basement location

Students set up posters at DCPL to guide visitors to the basement location.

On January 16, 2016, from 1:00 to 4:00 pm, The MUSEUMSAREUS Pop Up Museum galvanized a dimly lit basement auditorium at the Martin Luther King (main branch) of the DC Public Library (DCPL). A pop up museum, loosely defined, is a temporary installation of objects mostly contributed by the people who visit. This pop up was the class project for the on-site seminar in Washington, DC for the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies Program. While the JHU Museum Studies MA is essentially an on-line program, all students must complete a two-week seminar held on-site in various cities in the US and Europe.  Twenty students chose the January DC Seminar.

Our students came from all of the country, and although most were meeting for the first time, their team work from beginning to end was amazing.  Phyllis Hecht, Director of the Museum Studies Program, and I began working with DCPL in August 2015 in order to book the space and begin planning how we would collaborate.  As Teaching Assistant Monica Montgomery joined us later in the fall, we tried to do sufficient planning so that most of the main aspects of the pop up were in place in a timely manner. But we wanted to leave at least some substantive work for the students to do when they arrived on the weekend before January 16.  

If you are interested in the idea of pop up museums and are looking for step-by-step instructions, just go to the site created by Nora Grant of the Santa Cruz Museum.  Nora also has an article in the Spring 2015 issue of the museum journal Exhibitionist which should be online soon.  These resources, along with the ideas of two other “mothers” of the pop up concept, Michelle DelCarlo and Maria Mortati, guided us though the course.

Our themes for the pop up, chosen in collaboration with the library and with some museum partners in our project, were Home: What it means to me, and DC Music.  These are themes that reflect photo and artifact collections of DCPL, and we felt that they would resonate with DC residents. We invited visitors to bring in objects related to these two themes, and we were pleased to see that, as predicted by experienced pop up creators, people love to display their treasures along side formal collections.

A silver serving spoon used by 3 generations of women in her family says "Home" to this DC resident. On her hand-written label the green dot means visitors can handle the object.

A silver serving spoon used by 3 generations of women in her family says “Home” to this DC resident. On her hand-written label the green dot means visitors can handle the object.

The project was so complex and multifaceted that it would take several posts to discuss it all.  Following are our reflections are some key advantages and challenges:

Gretchen’s reflections 

Partnerships with libraries give museums community connections and access

Libraries across the country are known for their community orientation and for the inclusive way in which they serve their neighborhoods.  The DCPL is no exception; its doors are open to all, including people needing a place to sit and get warm during the day, residents who don’t have access to computers at home, individuals seeking classes and training in applying for jobs or housing.  At the same time the DCPL runs maker labs, a new Memory Lab for digitizing and documenting personal and family stories, and a lively series of stimulating daytime and evening author talks and other programs.  DCPL was immediately open to our proposal to use its public space (across the street from the Metro) for a pop up.  Their location and their well-established community orientation provided a space where DC residents, in particular African Americans, felt comfortable and welcome.

Museums can contribute programming, design, and evaluation strengths to libraries

For its part DCPL has discovered through the pop up experience a relatively inexpensive, family friendly format that allows them to put collections in addition to books on display while inviting public participation.  The Special Collections staff were thrilled with the 150 visitors who came to the pop up and who enjoyed African American family photos, tee shirts and other Go Go and Funk memorabilia, as well as the objects people brought in to display. Our DCPL collaborators tell us that they have received many emails asking if they can repeat the pop up at DCPL or perhaps introduce it as a series in neighborhood libraries all over the city.

Planning a pop up provides an opportunity to look critically at museums, to think about the nature of museums and their value in a community.

As some of the students said in their report,

Working on such cutting-edge projects means there is not as much literature as in other aspects of museum work.  While this means there is less guidance, there is also more room for flexibility and creativity.  In a very real sense, the Museums Are Us Pop Up is helping to define what our field means when we talk about Pop Up museums.

Though a very small sample, the following visitor responses to student interviews provide a kind of critique of  museums.

Question:  This event is called ” Museums Are Us.”  What does this mean to you? Do you see any connection between what you did today and what museums do?

Visitor responses:

People are what drives this. In a museum you seldom get the chance to interact.

Gives idea that you are welcome and part of it.

That museums are about us and what we want to see. Opportunity to see what is important to regular people instead of carefully curated exhibits.

For a long time museums were only for some of us.

You can think of stories at regular museums but [they are] not your own.

Museums can be anything–community, not old or stuffy, not masterpieces.

These responses replicate a finding discussed by Nora Grant in the Exhibitionist article mentioned above. Grant says that calling the pop up a “museum” rather than an “exhibition” “encourages people to rethink museum spaces and experiences.”

A pop up disconnects the concept of museum from a building while reinforcing what makes museums unique:

As the students said, they were puzzled about why our pop up partner was a library and not a museum. Nora Grant, in the Exhibitionist article mentioned above, observes:

The pop up museum exists within a paradox: it’s a museum outside of a museum, a room without walls. It’s appealing to plan a pop up museum in conjunction with a museum exhibition or event, but people are rightfully confused about a pop up museum taking place inside a museum.  Like a cafe inside a restaurant, a museum inside a museum fells redundant rather than complementary.  When framed by a larger museum, the pop up museum loses its individual vibrancy, as it can’t be decontextualized from preexisting notions about the host institution.  It also defies the point of its mobility.

At the same time, as visitors noted above, objects and stories, which people expect at museums, and social interaction, inclusiveness, and personal relevance, which people often don’t experience but would like to find at museums, are all present at a pop up.

A wire sculpture of musician Chuck Brown, "Godfather of Go Go" is part of the DCPL collection. Placed in the pop up, it was a crowd pleaser..

A wire sculpture of musician Chuck Brown, “Godfather of Go Go,” is part of the DCPL collection. Placed in the pop up, it was a crowd pleaser.

Almost all the challenges of creating a pop up experience can be summarized in three words:  communication, communication, and communication!

Many of the difficulties that we encountered during planning and execution came down to weaknesses or failures in communication

  • Advertising:  We should have sent information about the event to media outlets that needed several weeks notice, so that the publicity would have appeared during the week before the Pop Up.  And we should have advertised to a broader number of outlets.  The students saw this when they arrived, made a fabulous short video which you can see here, and broadcast it widely through social media. They also contacted radio stations and other media outlets that the DCPL and we had not thought of.
  • We want you to bring YOUR objects:  Though we had been warned that this concept was very difficult to communicate, we needed to let potential visitors know even more clearly that we really wanted THEIR stuff! Only about ten people actually brought objects to display. Luckily the students had created a central table where people who had not brought items to show could draw pictures of their concepts of “Home” or “Music” and put them on display.  This table was especially popular with families and children.
  • Liaison between students and DCPL:  While I tried to be the link between the students and our main contacts at DCPL, students often wanted to have direct contact regarding advertising, set up, and object display.  This meant that communication was dispersed, and I was sometimes unaware of messages between students and DCPL.  Next time I would ask a couple of the students to be the liaisons for specific areas, requiring fellow students to go through them. This would provide a learning experience on the importance of centralized communication on a complex project.

Simplicity is best

While we decided on two themes in order to give all of the twenty students something to work on (two teams of ten students each), we learned that the two themes might have confused visitors, resulting in fewer objects on display. In a future pop up we would have a single theme but divide students into small groups focused on different aspects of planning such as advertising, design, interpretation, etc.

Monica’s reflections 

I never imagined  co-teaching a course would put me back in the learners seat, but it did. As I worked with the students to shape and mold their ideas and push their user centered design ideals and creative thinking to the max, I became a student once more. Learning from the process in a holistic sense was iterative and messy and challenging.

When conceiving of readings to add depth and scope to the course, I defaulted to the scholarship of my peers; the blogs, think pieces and Storified Tweetchats that I knew our students needed to know about, that went prescribed in the carefully scaffolded assigned readings other classes had. We needed to read about work that was subversive, radical dealing with race, class, gender, privilege and equity.

The students were shy at first, but many opened up as the days went on and we got to know each other.

The Museums Are Us pop up exhibit and course was an act of creative disruption, and that’s what made it so dynamic. We didn’t just talk community engagement we lived it, thinking of audiences that were bilingual, special needs, experiencing houselessness, different ages etc. The final result was so rich, and the 150+ visitors that joined us seemed to love the warm colorful welcoming space we created for them and within them. There is a power in disruption; it is a teaching tool and an important part of breaking the mold to find new pathways that work in our field.

In Summary

The central MLK branch of DCPL is going to close this summer for a major three-year renovation project.  Museum staff are already thinking about replicating the pop ups, perhaps as a series, at neighborhood libraries.  The two week course during which we planned, conducted, and evaluated the pop up was incredibly intense and demanding.  But in light of the response of the library, its audience, and the students themselves, it was well worth the hard work, late nights, and long hours!

If you are reading this as part of an email and would like to comment, please go to www.museumcommons.com,  or send a comment to Twitter.  Monica is @monica_muses and I am @gretchjenn.




4 thoughts on “Pop Ups: Disrupting the Idea of “Museum”

  1. I am so glad to see that the main challenges you face are the same ones I face each time I do a Pop-Up! We’ve now done three pop-ups throughout the Milwaukee area, and they’ve increased in popularity, but there is still definitely room for improvement in how we communicate they idea. I love that your students included a spot for kids, families, or other visitors could contribute without an object through drawing. We provide a object-less storytelling option, but just through the written word. I’m thinking it would be valuable to include more choices. Thanks for posting the honest feedback on the program. They are so important for connecting to the wider community, and I’m so happy to see your success so early on!

    • Thanks, Margaret, I’ll share this with my students. I know they’ll appreciate it. Some of them are presenting on it at AAM, I believe in the Marketplace of ideas – in case you are there. best- Gretchen

  2. Gretchen, what a wonderful experience! Thanks so much for sharing the details. Jan (Crocker) and I have been running Pop-Ups within my museum studies class for several years and each year the students comment that it is such a great way to get to know each other. I love the idea of using the students to host it in a broader venue. We also ran one at our annual NEMA conference, again, as a way for our community to interact with each other. We have been attempting to work with local historical societies that are interested in hosting a pop-up at their sites, but we have been struggling to help the community understand what a pop-up means. I am intrigued by the idea of running the event at a library instead. And, we have also just started talking about the idea of using a video to promote the concept so it was wonderful to see the video you created. Your blog will most certainly help us make the concept more concrete.
    Thanks, as always, for sharing your work.

    • Thanks, Lynn, Am going to share this with my student. They will be presenting at AAM, I think in the Marketplace of Ideas, in case you are there. G

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.