Popup Museum – Part Two

If you’ve either been around this parts for awhile (in which case I’m sure you’re shocked *I’m* still around these parts) or have perused the…ahem…back catalogue (as it were), you’ll know that just over a year ago I wrote a post about the idea I came back from the Museums Australia National Conference in Melbourne with. You remember…the popup museum post.

So this year the National Conference was here in Perth (yay!). A fellow devotee of the popup museum idea, Suzanne Jess, and I were asked to run a session on the idea. Originally we had decided to actually do a popup museum and then report on that, then time went by and it wasn’t feasible, so we decided to run a popup museum during the conference and have a workshop we’d call a ‘live case study’…time went by and then it was the week of the conference. So, last minute creativity and not a little bit of stress, we managed to pull off a very interactive and well-received workshop that was really fun to be a part of.

I’m going to put below the bit I read out (to limit my tendency to excitedly waffle) at the start of the session. We also had people discuss the ideas in groups, which allowed people to engage with the ideas, not just listen to them (I’m all for that sort of stuff).

One of the best parts of the session was when a participant from a funding body thrust their card into my hand and said “I want some submissions from you”. Woot! Later, other participants and I planned and schemed and hopefully we can get ourselves organised to run a touring popup museum across the Goldfields area of WA. Even better!! And then, I got an email from someone who can’t do the popup museum idea at their organisation but is thinking of doing one on the side, as it were. Awesome!! Exciting times ahead for this idea!

Okay, here is what I said in the session:

This session is really about exploring the idea of using non-permanent spaces to exhibit museum objects by and for a community. I had the germination of this idea at the National Conference last year and have developed it further in discussions with various people, but especially Jane King and Suzanne Jess at Museums Australia (WA). We really wanted to present a case study of how running a popup museum went but….well, you know, a year goes by too quickly! So what we are going to do instead is present the ideas we already have and then ask you to run with them, to generate your own ideas, think about your own communities and how this idea can help you to generate engagement in your community through museum exhibits. We also want to give you the tools to start thinking practically about how to do this as well as how to keep in touch with each other and keep collaborating.

Just by the way, I’m an Historian who focuses on local heritage so my interests lie there, but there is no reason that natural history, maritime history, archaeology, ethnography, anthropology or any other discipline that is relevant to your area couldn’t be treated in the same way. I know almost nothing about natural history, but it seems to me that many people collect specimens of things they find in the environment that could be developed into exhibitions.

Okay, so as you can tell, this session is about ideas. After the National Conference last year I wrote a post on my blog about popup museums. I also did a google search for popup museums and found nothing. In preparation for this workshop I did another search and found…well, quite a bit! I really want this idea to be non-proprietary – I want people to take ownership of it, use it how they like and develop it further so I’m very pleased to see that others have had the idea and actually developed popup museums. One of the key aspects to the ideas Suzanne and I have discussed is about developing citizen curators – about community members taking control of the telling of their own stories (and I’m not talking community exhibition spaces here, but a much more structured experience) and about us as professionals supporting that and continuing to build strong communities through that. We also want to support useful, practical and cost effective ways for communities to develop collections.

So, first I want to show you some of the ideas I came across online and then I’ll tell you about the ideas Suzanne, Jane and I have discussed – especially to do with regional museums and collections.

Popup around the world

Leeds Popup Museum – allows the museum to travel to those who can’t . Exhibitions in nursing homes with hands-on objects, opportunities to reminisce, talk, debate and then for a small exhibition to stay at the nursing home for a while. Fantastic idea! (think about audience – sitting down! – cater for this!)

Australian Museum Popup Museum – developed by Michelle DelCarlo, a University of Washington Graduate Student in Museology who has been working on this idea. She ran a popup museum in Sydney working with school students who bring in their own objects, write labels and then discuss. After the day the objects go home with their owners.

Coffs Harbour Popup Museum – after a flood in 2009 and the temporary storage of museum items, the museum worked with a local shopping mall to use an empty shop to exhibit some items.

History of Queer History Popup Museum – with limited interest in this topic by the major museums, a group formed to put on the Queer History Popup Museum. How’d you like attendance like that?!

North Perth Share House (Popup) Museum – run last weekend during the Beaufort Street Festival, this was a chance to reminisce about experiences living in Share Houses in North Perth as young and broke. People were invited to contribute and others to bring items on the day.

South West Seattle Historical Society Popup Museum – also by Michelle DelCarlo, she worked with members of the historical society to run a popup museum similar to the one in Sydney with people bringing their objects associated with a theme (thanksgiving) and spending the day writing labels and talking.

Ideas for regions

Collections

Where and how does a regional museum keep its collection? Does it have access to the best objects of the region? How does it limit the collection of unwanted old stuff? What is their collection? Do they have important regional objects with clear provenance? Can they look after these objects? What kinds of barriers impact on a museum telling the stories of the region?

I would suggest these are some of the key questions for regional museums. Regional museums are typically run by volunteers with limited expertise but enormous passion and dedication. In my experience in small museums the passion and dedication are not enough to make up for limited expertise, which means the stuff they have cannot be thoughtfully massaged into a meaningful collection that can tell the stories of the region.

Probably the key barrier to telling these stories is the collection itself. While bogged down with washboards and ploughs, volunteers look for the stereotype of history and skip over the really interesting stuff. They aren’t thinking in terms of stories or themes.

For a popup museum then, where does the collection come from? Well, the community for a start, but objects are loaned, not given. They physically live in the collection for the length of the popup museum or exhibition, are photographed and recorded into the collection database at this time, they remain digitally within the collection but return to their owner at the end of the popup museum. This way a museum does not need to house, conserve or care for the collection in the same way it does now, donors don’t need to let go of their objects and the community gets to see relevant, interesting objects that say something about a story or theme around which the popup museum is created.

If we think of the volunteer’s relationship to the collection differently, if the community sees it as a privilege to have an object included in the collection, if volunteers don’t need to look after the physical collection, if we don’t call them volunteers – what would happen then?

Citizen curators

David Milne from QLD Museum spoke briefly about citizen curators last year at the National Conference. Initially I was thinking about citizen curators that arrive at a popup museum and are given license to re-curate the exhibition to tell a different story during their visit. I still think this is a good idea, although how many people could just come in off the street and engage to this level is debatable. In discussions with Jane and Suzanne, we came up with a more structured approach that included inviting community members to be citizen curators for a particular exhibition/popup museum and to support them with training and guide them through the process. The aim is to have a group of people with a range of useful skills (including design, building, project mgt, administration as well as knowledge of the topic/themes, creativity, interest, technology skill etc). The group are not volunteers who commit their lives to an interest group such as a historical society, but a group of people who come together for a project, bringing their skills and experience with them. There is a whole lot of thinking around this approach to volunteering on the net. It is commonly known as using Free Agents – you can google it! But also check out this and this.

Themes and stories

The group then, made up of those from the community, work around a theme or set of stories to create an exhibition or popup museum. This could be a significant event in the community, a group (new or old) that are part of the community, linked to a larger state, national or world event or idea, a passion/idea of the members of a community or their own stories in their own right. Depending on the type of support the citizen curators get from professionals, I see the popup museums they create as being highly engaging, passionate, challenging – like nothing seen in regional museums!

Exhibitions

These are really the popup museums – the exhibitions created with the objects from the collection and the identification of new objects around the themes or stories identified. Other key aspects are the opening of the popup museum for a period of time (say a month), all day every day, the location of the popup museum in the places were the community are (rather than trying to make the community come to the museum, take the museum to them!), the collection of the communities engagement with the popup museum (feedback, audience research, recording conversations, blogs or wikis), the recording of the process of creating the popup museum and including that in the collection, online support, partnerships with local businesses, opening night, late-night museum openings with late-night shopping nights, events, workshops, lectures, tours, education….really the list is endless! I got some more ideas yesterday hearing about wonderful projects at the Powerhouse, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of Australia.

Conservation

I wanted to take a breath for a minute and touch on conservation. How can a museum properly care for objects if they don’t physically look after them? Obviously there are some objects that will need conservation and ongoing care. I still think these would need to be collected – but only if the museum can provide the care! If they are doing just fine in someone’s cupboard then perhaps it is better to leave it there rather than house it in a shed out the back of the council building. There will also be objects important enough to be collected by a larger collecting institution, it is important that popup museum groups identify these and act accordingly.

If the number of objects requiring conservation and care (especially in regards to temperature control) is small then it will be easier to find a place to put them; a storeroom in the library or council building for example. Perhaps there are local businesses with facilities that can help in conservation – the supermarket’s freezer section for killing bugs maybe – with a chance for some interpretation right there in the shop?!

Objects collected for a popup museum can also be correctly stored using the proper materials for return to their owners. A fact sheet about how to care for the object can be returned with it. When necessary, annual visiting of objects to identify new conservation issues could be done.

Digital and online resources

Having the collection always available online is another key aspect of the popup museum. We still want to have a collection and to be able to access it. I suggest using collection databases like Omeka that make it easy to put collections online and for others to use and interact with the collection (adding tags and stories for example) and to use social media to drive people to visit the collection in this way. Perhaps a volunteer/citizen curator’s job for  a month is to post one story to facebook each week that highlights an object in the collection. This sort of thing can be ongoing so that the community continues to engage with the collection in between popup events.

Collaboration and sharing

And of course, this makes the collaboration and sharing of objects, collections and ideas within and importantly between communities possible. Maybe a community in Albany is doing a popup on fishing stories and see that the Port Headland collection includes a 1970s fishing bag that would be perfect – they can not only see that Port Headland have that but can contact them to arrange a loan. Maybe Albany and Port Headland will collaborate further, perhaps develop twin popups or a travelling popup that can go around the state…

So after I rambled on about all this, we set everyone to talking – and talk they did! I commented at the time that I’ve never run a group discussion session where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise with the groups – fantastic!

Suzanne then explained some of the practicalities around setting up museums in non-permanent spaces, especially using the fantastic work of Renew Newcastle. You can download the handout we gave out here: The popup museum project.

I’m really keen to keep this conversation going so please use comments below and stay tuned for more ways to join in!

Special thanks to the people that came along to the session – many more of you than we’d anticipated too :).

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