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When Pop-Up Museums Are the Answer

August 13, 2013

There is nothing terribly new about Pop-Up Museums.  The concept originated in the 1990s.  In a Museum 2.0 post, Nina Simon describes Pop-Up Museums as “a short-term institution existing in a temporary space; a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.”  As just two examples, Pop-Up Museums exhibit the results of high school student archaeological excavations and the history of Apple products.

I am not interested in a dogmatic purity in the terms application, such as the conversation around what can and cannot be called a Third Place (see recent article by my colleague Natalye Tate on same).  Instead, here I consider how the Pop-Up Museum is useful for community outreach and engagement, particularly in archaeological and historical contexts.

posted before about the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society’s (MAGS) work with collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum.   Since that blog post, the group chose to also create traveling archeological exhibits.  MAGS intends to create these mobile thematic exhibits in collaboration with students from the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  MAGS will use the mobile exhibits at the dozens of public events they take part in each year.  The exhibits will differ from the typical “traveling trunks” that often amount to magician’s kit with a bit of everything.  Rather the exhibits will be thematic (stone tools, ceramics, Paleoindian) or spatial (specific site) with didactic panels and cultural materials.  Ideally, these Pop-Up Museums will continue to evolve and grow based on the specific needs and opportunities for public outreach by MAGS.  The intended purpose of the exhibits is to engage the public and educate and build awareness of the archaeological resources and prehistory of their region.

I experimented with another type of Pop-Up Museum during my tenure as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point Earthworks in northeast Louisiana some 10 – 15 years ago.  The idea was to create small exhibits for Louisiana parish (county) libraries based on a specific Poverty Point site excavation, artifact type, or prehistoric activity.  The Pop-Up Museum would remain in place for a three-month period.  We envisioned that multiple and different Pop-Up Museums could rotate throughout the library system of northeast Louisiana.  Unfortunately, without the support of a MAGS-type avocational group or a university with a museum studies program, the plans were not implemented beyond a few libraries.  The purpose of the exhibits was to educate and raise awareness in the community surrounding the Poverty Point site about the massive earthwork complex.

The short video clip at the top of this page is from the Pop-Up Museum created in Hualcayán, Peru at the village’s first annual heritage festival held on August 3, 2013 that I posted about last week.  The Pop-Up Museum addressed immediate strategic vision of PIARA Directors Rebecca Bria and Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and the Hualcayán community.  As reported in last week’s blog post, a substantive part of PIARA’s work is outreach to the rural community situated around, and in some cases on top of, an archaeological record that spans 4000 years of human occupation.  As is often the case in such situations, the community’s primary relationship to the archaeological record until recently was based in an economic incentive from artifact sales to collectors.  Most often, even archaeologists relate to such communities primarily through an economic relationship by employing residents in field projects or providing funds for community development projects.  While PIARA also employs Hualcayán residents and provides material support to community projects, the Directors consider the education and empowerment of the local community as an essential part of their research design.

The Pop-Up Museum at the August 3rd Heritage Festival served multiple purposes.  First, as shown in the clip above, the excavated cultural materials were contextualized and interpreted in time and space and not as an economic incentive.  The Pop-Up Museum was also a first step toward creating a permanent museum based in the Hualcayán community.   A permanent museum is part of both the PIARA and the Hualcayán community’s vision of a multi-component strategy to develop the region’s cultural heritage, ecotourism, and museum related opportunities to directly benefit area residents.  The success of the Pop-Up Museum was demonstrated in part by the steady stream of residents visiting throughout the Heritage Festival, and into the next day as well.

The examples above show how Pop-Up Museums as temporary institutions can:

  • educate, inform, and engage communities to identify with their past through cultural heritage exhibits.
  • incorporate the input and talents of avocational and student support.
  • present cultural heritage resources in a diversity of locales beyond that of a typical museum.

How have you used Pop-Up Museums in your work? 

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