When Pop-Up Museums Are the Answer

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? 

What to do with all of those surface collections. . .

MAGS artifact3

A few weeks I posted about how museum professionals and archaeologists can work with volunteers in the analysis of cultural materials and museum exhibits.  I raised up a project that we were embarking on with Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  The launch of the project this past Saturday was a great start.  Here is how the first day went and some lessons learned:

  • We created binders with about 75 pages of xeroxed readings that included a 1954 article from the Tennessee Historic Society on work that the MAGS performed at Chucalissa in the early 1950s; an Archaeology 101 type article from the Archaeological Institute of America; an introduction to projectile point analysis; a chapter on stone tool analysis from a regional site report; two introductory articles on museum exhibit design; and a glossary of archaeological terms.  When we distributed the binders on Saturday we let folks know the readings were not homework but rather an information source as we continue into the project.  We expected that either we would provide or the participants would come across other articles and information to add to the binders through time.
  • For about half of the four-hour session on Saturday we talked about what we intended for the long-term scope of the project.  We toured the repository and noted the materials we curated that had never been analysed or reported to the public.  The participants realized that they had plenty of “job security” for this monthly activity.
  • We then discussed the 5000 surface collected artifacts from Lincoln County that we proposed analyzing in our first project.  I reported on this collection in a previous post.  This past week I contacted the Lincoln County Museum in Fayetteville Tennessee to see if they were interested in having an exhibit on these collections.  We had a very interesting conversation.  I spoke to Farris Beasley one of the directors of the Museum. Dr. Beasley is also the veterinarian who treated the cattle of the farmer, Fred Jobe, who donated the collection to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981.  Mr. Jobe passed away last November.  Coincidentally the Jobe farmhouse, built in the early 1800s, was being sold that very weekend.  Dr. Beasley noted the farm’s connection to land grants from the Revolutionary War period, that Mr. Jobe had been a minor league baseball player, and then asked “How did those artifacts get to Memphis?” to which I did not have a good response.  Our conversation ended with an invitation for me to attend a Museum Board of Directors meeting to discuss installing an exhibit on the Jobe farm artifacts.
  • This past Saturday our MAGS group began to brainstorm what such an exhibit might include. They considered the type of information and artifacts to include in the exhibit.  What would museum visitors want to know about the artifacts and the prehistory of the area? The MAGS group concluded there is a need to show how the stone tools we often think of as arrow heads were actually used for many purposes.  We discussed how different raw materials indicated the Native Americans who lived two thousand years ago on what became Mr. Jobe’s farm participated in a trade and exchange network – and more.  We discussed that the exhibit might be limited by the space available in the Lincoln County Museum.  The MAGS group also suggested they do some research and create a tri-fold information sheet on the prehistory of Lincoln County.  As well, one participant suggested that we could create traveling trunk exhibits from the Jobe farm surface collections for area schools.
  • The rest of our Saturday session we spent completing the re-inventory of the collection.  Participants were given pads of paper to make notes on interesting artifacts they came across as candidates to include in the exhibit.  Some of the noted artifacts included flint tools with sickle sheen indicating their use in agricultural activities.  Other artifacts that drew interest included two ground stone discoidals, generally interpreted to be used as chunky stones in games of skill.  Participants asked questions like “How can you tell if this artifact was used as a knife or a spear?” and “How would the handle be attached to a knife?”
  • We ended our first meeting by discussing where the participants would like the sessions to go in the future.  Everyone agreed that the general direction we were pursuing was a good one.

Here are a few of my takeaway points on the experience so far:

  • I really enjoy seeing the direction that the MAGS members want to take the exhibit.  Too often, museum professionals and archaeologists can get bogged down in typology and other factors of limited interest to museum visitors and forget about that intrinsic wonder that first attracted them to their careers.
  • My conversation with Dr. Beasley at the Lincoln County Museum added a sense of engagement that further ties the prehistoric materials to the community memory, linking the historic with the prehistoric.
  • Perhaps of greatest importance is recognizing that the hundreds of thousands of surface collected artifacts in our nation’s museum repositories that are only provenienced to a farm field or even a county and judged of little “research” interest can take on a new life.  The volunteer work and brainstorming from our small MAGS group this past Saturday demonstrated the very real potential of these collections.  Also, think of the value of a small acknowledgement in such an exhibit “that the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society created the exhibit from collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.”  Such an understanding raises the relevance of our cultural heritage institutions in service to the very public who fund these public facilities.  I suggest that activities such as our MAGS group meeting this past Saturday are some of the most effective responses to the American Digger type mentality.

How can the surface collections you curate be put to more effective use?

The Essential Role of Volunteers in Museums

(left to right) Claire Mundy, Robert Ford, Charles McNutt, Ron Brister

This past Saturday we held our annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I am always quite humbled and grateful when looking at not just the number of volunteers but also what they accomplish over the course of a year.  In the last year, our museum had a full-time staff of four, a part-time staff of four graduate assistants, supported by over 200 volunteers.  Of those 200 volunteers, the majority are one time participants such as Scout or youth groups on service projects.  Another 40 volunteers participate occasionally throughout the year.  A core of 20 volunteers can be counted on like clockwork to show up on a scheduled basis.

I reflected on a blog post I wrote last year titled “Volunteers as Mission.”  In the post I noted that the primary reason we have volunteer programs at our Museum is not because we do not have enough staff to do all the things we need to do but because our very mission mandates that we offer participatory experiences for the public at Chucalissa.  That participation often comes in the form of volunteer opportunities.

At Saturday’s dinner we also considered how the skills that volunteers bring to the Museum is an essential part of collaborative and co-creative visitor experience.  A new exhibit that opened on Saturday exemplified this point.  The exhibit features prehistoric stone tools from Midsouth region that range in age from 12000 BC to AD 1500.  The exhibit came about through the participation of several contributors who all brought their special skills to the table.  Only one of those individuals is a part of the regular staff at the Museum.  The participants included:

  • Robert Ford of Wynne Arkansas who generously donated to the C.H. Nash Museum artifacts he surface collected from area farm fields over the years.  Mr. Ford’s donated materials are also used in other educational programs at the Museum.
  • Ron Brister and Richard Whittington are volunteers who examined the thousands of artifacts in the Ford collection and pulled a sample of a couple hundred to represent over 13000 years of prehistoric occupation in the region.  They also donated and modified a beautiful map case to house the exhibit.  Ron brought over 40 years of expertise to the project as the recently retired Collections Manager at the Pink Palace here in Memphis.
  • Brooke Mundy, an undergraduate intern at the University of Memphis assisted with exhibit design and construction.  She also created the panels for the exhibit and interviewed Robert Ford at his home in Wynne.
  • The Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) generously provided the funds to create the exhibit.  MAGS has a long-term commitment to Chucalissa archaeology extending back to the early 1950s before there was even a museum at the site.
  • Our museum staff oversaw the creation process, assisting primarily in logistics, exhibit text, and panel printing.
Here is the punch line to the story.  The assemblage of folks who helped create the exhibit provided both time and resources that are in short supply at not just the C.H. Nash Museum, but in museums across the country.  But more importantly, each participant brought expertise and skills to the process that are not available on our regular staff.  So, museums do not just need volunteers because there are not enough staff to do the tasks at hand, or because they are mandated to do so by their Mission Statements, but also because the volunteer brings to the museum skills, expertise, and resources not available with the regular staff.  In my comments at the Saturday night dinner, I noted that the volunteers at our museum were absolutely essential to our operation.  That is not just hype to make folks feel good about their participation.
What essential skills and expertise do volunteers bring to your institution?