Pop-Up Museums in Santa Cruz

A couple years ago, Michelle DelCarlo blogged for the Incluseum about her pop-up museum model. Since then, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) has adopted and adapted this temporary museum model, popping up all around town. We continue to believe this alternative way of being a museum holds great potential in terms of inclusion. Today, Nora Grant from the MAH talks to us about her museum’s work with pop-up museums. If you’re inspired, you can access a toolkit she helped put together and contribute your pop-up museum story to popupmuseum.org’s archives.

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What is a Pop Up Museum?Photo-Mar-08-9-21-19-AM

You may have noticed how the term “pop up” is now preceding a number of establishments: pop up restaurants, pop up boutiques, pop up concerts, and even, pop up museums. But what is a pop up museum? How can something substantial like a museum pop up so to speak? There are different models, including The Pop-Up Museum of Queer HistoryThe New York Met, or the SF Mobile Museum, but at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, we organize pop up museums that are created by the people who show up to participate. Building off of Michelle DelCarlo’s pop up museum model, MAH pop up museums focus on bringing people together in conversation through stories, art, and objects, and can happen anytime, anywhere, and with any community.

How Does It Work?

We work in collaboration with community partners to choose a theme and venue, and invite people to bring something on-topic to share. We lay out tables with empty frames and museum labels. When participants show up, they write a label for their object and leave it on display. You can also think of pop up museums as potluck museums, because everyone is invited to bring something to share. The museum lasts for a few hours on one day and people can take their items home with them whenever they please.

Pop up museums typically take place outside of our museum, and at the site of our collaborating partner or organization. For example, we’ve had a pop up museum at a Natural Park, an Anarchist Sewing Collective, and the Santa Cruz Harbor to name a few.

Pop up Museum "Celebrating the Voyage" at the Santa Cruz Harbor.

Pop up Museum “Celebrating the Voyage” at the Santa Cruz Harbor.

In addition to pop up museums we facilitate locally in Santa Cruz, we also want to provide global support for anyone interested in having a pop up museum. We have created a free and downloadable Pop Up Museum organizer’s kit. Check it out if you’re curious about choosing a strong theme, working with a collaborator, designing a portable structure, or tips for implementation. Though folks may follow our basic format, each pop up museum has its own culture and vibe since each one has a different theme, location, and organizer. You can view past pop up museums from people around the world on our pop up museum website, www.popupmuseum.org.

Why Have a Pop Up Museum?

Maybe you’re dying to show off your father’s hand tool collection. Or you want an excuse to gather new homemade pie recipes. Or you’re a museum who wants to add some new oomph to a collection that’s accumulating dust. There are multiple reasons to have a pop up museum from the personal to the institutional, but the core purpose of the pop up museum is to bring people together through meaningful stories and objects. Even though we all have fascinating things, only some of us get to show them in a museum, or have intimate conversations with the person behind the exhibited content. The pop up museum is a format for public and open-ended curation. It empowers people to share stories and validates their objects within a museum framework.

It’s been challenging to clarify that the pop up museum serves more like a “potluck” museum, meaning people bring objects to share, rather than simply consume content. Most people assume the pop up museum is chiefly or solely curated by museum staff. But we favor this “potluck” approach because it:

  • opens up conversations as to what it means to be a museum and who can participate in making one.
  • brings the museum out of physical confines, and into the community.
  • allows us to experiment with themes, content, and collaborations in an intimate yet short-lived, simple way.
  • Gives substance and voice to different people’s stories regardless of social, cultural, or economic background.

What is the Inclusive Potential of Pop Up Museums?

Pop up museums can be radically inclusive. In fact, they are brought into existence by the people who show up to them. Without participants, there would be no museum. All of our pop up museums have been free and open to the public, save for one that we did during a local business’ staff happy hour. This pop up was a bonding experience for an intact group, and surfaced the idea of having more personal, private pop up museums at dinner parties, birthday celebrations, staff meetings, etc.

One of the reasons we started the pop up museum project was to challenge the idea that museums have an omnipresent authority over what is and what’s not “valuable.” We were surprised to learn though that the pop up museum is actually most compelling when we exhibit objects from the museum’s collection alongside individuals’ objects. This bridges institutional and community-created content. By sharing the same space, you’re illustrating how a personal object can have just as much story value as a museum object. This mixing and matching ties into another conversation around what a “museum” means to people. People certainly have diverse views and relationships to museums, but I found that most of our collaborators were excited to partner with a museum because it validated their project or object.


Want to Learn More?

It’s been a little over a year now since we’ve been popping up around Santa Cruz County, and have held over 30 different pop up museums. I helped to conceptualize, design, implement, and develop the pop up museum program and website with museum staff and have been able to learn a great deal about what a museum means to different people. What’s challenging yet important about the pop up museum is that it’s a flexible format for sharing. The changeability is part of its charm. We don’t know exactly how, or where, or with whom it will pop up and want to keep it open to interpretation and augmentation. We don’t have all the answers and the best way I have learned about pop up museums was simply by having them, and learning from others who had them too. If you have had or want to have a pop up museum, we would love to hear about your experience. Please feel free to share your experience on our pop up museum archive blog, and learn from people around the world who have had pop up museums.

We just hired a new Community Programs Coordinator named Sandino Gomez who will adopt and lead our pop up museums going forward. I’m excited to see how Sandino will shape and expand the project. If you would like to discuss pop up museums with Sandino Gomez, he can be reached at sandino@santacruzmah.org.  Like the blank labels or empty frames we leave out on the table, we hope pop up museums will continue to invite and support public conversation, personal empowerment, and open-ended narratives.

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Nora Grant holds a BA in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked in various art and educational settings, including tutoring inmates at San Quentin (Marin, CA), assisting contemporary artists at New York fine art paper mill Pace Prints, (Brooklyn, NY), teaching a Forms of Storytelling class for UC Berkeley (Berkeley, CA), and managing Pop Up Museums for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). She currently works as the Community Programs Coordinator for the MAH, where she collaborates with diverse members of the community to build social capital through participatory, interdisciplinary programs. Nora Grant is also a practicing visual artist and writer whose work explores x, y, and beyond z. You can view her website at www.noracgrant.com

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If you are interested in flexible museum models and/or have been working with these types of models, the Spring 2015 issue of Exhibitionist is looking for papers on the topic. You can access there call for papers here.

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