The Pop-Up Museum as a Social Inclusion Strategy

Over the last year, we’ve had the opportunity to follow Michelle DelCarlo’s Pop-Up Museum, even participating in a couple of these community-oriented events in the Seattle-area. We’ve been pondering the opportunities this type of flexible approach to community engagement presents to museums interested in social inclusion. We’ve asked Michelle to reflect on these opportunities in her post for the Incluseum.

Inclusion is a real and important goal in my professional life. From The Pop-Up Museum to my current work at the Smithsonian, I have always felt that creating spaces where everyone has a voice is a vital part of museum practice.

The pop-up museum model I created, which I call “The Pop-Up Museum,” is a community event where, based on a theme, people share their own personal objects and stories in order to create conversation and build community. As the director of the project, I felt it was important that all participants be given an equal opportunity to share, thus the idea of everyone bringing in their own personal object. Additionally, as my mission was to create conversation between people of all ages and walks of life, I believed that I had to create an environment where people truly had an equal opportunity to express themselves. For those museums looking to create a more inclusive strategy, I would highly recommend holding a pop-up museum.

Holding an event where members of the community are welcome to contribute a meaningful aspect from their own lives is a wonderful way to build relationships and make a museum more inclusive. From my experience, this process creates trust and inspires people – both inside and outside the museum – to open their minds to new perspectives. When holding pop-ups, I often heard participants say it was an experience totally unlike a “normal” museum visit. While I don’t feel I can draw any conclusions from this feedback, it does bring the question of inclusivity in museums to the forefront.

Michelle Delcarlo at the McPherson Museum of Art and History’s Pop-Up themed “Something or Someone You Love.” (Photo courtesy of Cynthia Mathews)

One of the biggest challenges I encountered while experimenting with The Pop-Up Museum was operating outside of my capacity. Even though I had the idea and the ambition to make it happen, I learned that I am not a good self-promoter and didn’t have the capacity to do so. My advice for museums with a limited budget for advertising these sorts of inclusive events is to create strong relationships within your community that you can pull from when you are short on capacity.

In my current work as the Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator for the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, I am staying dedicated to my goal of inclusivity. The whole idea of Spark!Lab is that everyone can be inventive. All of the activities in Spark!Lab are designed to empower children and families, no matter their circumstances or background, to become inventors. For me, this is a powerful message: you are welcome, you are valuable, you are included.

Michelle DelCarlo graduated from the University of Washington in 2012, earning a Master of Arts degree from the Museology Graduate Program and a Nonprofit Management Certificate from the Evans School of Public Affairs. Her full thesis project report on the pop-ups is available on Exhibit Files. Currently, she is the Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator for the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. You can reach Michelle at for more information on The Pop-Up Museum or Spark!Lab.


[Update 02/23/2013]

Excited about what you just read? Inspired to host your own Pop-Up Museum? Michelle just published a Pop-Up Museum Blueprint to help you out in your endeavor!

[Update 02/28/2013]

Need more inspiration? Read about how the Durham Museum History in Durham, NC is experimenting with pop-up museums on the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog.


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