Forget Musty Old Art Exhibits—Pop-up Museums Put You on Display

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art can be a community activity.

(Illustration: Courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

Mar 14, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When you host a potluck, everyone brings a dish to share, and unless you assign your guests specific things to bring, part of the fun is the hodgepodge of (hopefully tasty) food that comes through the front door. If the night goes right, you eat something new and get to hear your friends' stories about recipes that were happy accidents or are family secrets passed down from generation to generation.

What if museums operated in the same way?

That's the idea behind the Pop Up Museum, an initiative spearheaded by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, Calif., that calls on members of the community to put their own stories, art, and culture—from quilts, dolls, postcards, sock monkeys, and photos to stethoscopes and shillelaghson display.

Unlike static museum exhibits of Roman antiquities or traveling exhibits of Old Master art that take months to curate and install, a pop-up museum is a temporary exhibit—most last only a few hours.

Nora Grant, the Santa Cruz Museum's community programs coordinator, says the inspiration for the project came from seasoned museum professional Michelle DelCarlo, who began hosting pop-up museums as part of her graduate studies. In 2011, DelCarlo brought her pop-up "experiment in community building and the creation of meaningful experiences" to MAH, and the staff fell in love with the concept.

"We feel passionate about sharing the stories, histories, and voices of our community," says Grant, so the idea of bringing a museum experience to diverse communities that don't have easy access to formal exhibit spaces appealed to the staff.

Grant acknowledges that at first "most people are confused by the idea," but the way it works is pretty simple: A host individual or organization chooses a theme and location and then invites participants to share.

What kind of themes are we talking about? One recent pop-up tackled a topic straight from Craigslist: missed connections.

"From heartbreak to wrong-place-wrong time, we invite you to share your missed connection tales, and make a few in the process," reads the event page. Community members were asked to "bring objects from failed relationships to share." Instead of being held in a museum space, the pop-up took place at a nontraditional venue: a local bar during happy hour. There was even a thematic drink special.

Grant says the museum has received plenty of positive feedback about its Pop Up Museums, but the idea has received its share of criticism. Formal art viewers take issue with the fact that "participants are encouraged to touch exhibited content," says Grant. That's a real no-no in traditional museums, which are laden with priceless artifacts and the requisite "do not touch" signage.

"But we see the objects as a means for igniting unexpected connections and shared experiences among participants," says Grant. Also, because so many people are tactile learners, "the ability to touch the objects is a unique and magical part of the pop-up."

The museum aims to spread the idea beyond Santa Cruz. It has developed a Pop Up Museum Organizer's Kit that provides step-by-step directions to hosting such gatherings, in the hopes that people around the world will enjoy connecting and "discovering what makes your museum pop."