What we can learn from Pop-Up Museums? Best practice and ideas from Instagram friendly experiences
July 16 2019
By Manuel Charr
Millennials used to seeking out the perfect selfie moment are hungry for cultural experiences that also afford them the opportunity to take great pictures for their social media feeds. Although some may scoff at the idea of this self-centred approach, it really misses the point. Social media has changed the cultural landscape and pop-up museums have embraced this phenomenon with enthusiasm.
That does not mean that there is no place for more traditional museums, of course. What it does mean is that museum professionals have to learn from what pop-up cultural experiences are offering visitors.
Emphatically, it is not about aping what is going on elsewhere or pandering to millennials. Such an approach would inevitably be patronising and fail in the end. Rather, what the pop-up phenomenon can teach us is that to get people to engage with museum collections, the public will increasingly expect novelty and innovation.
So, it is not a question of lowering expectations or playing to a public with an ever-decreasing attention span. It is more about offering something enticing that gets people talking and sharing online instead. After all, social media is the new word-of-mouth.
What Is a Pop-Up Museum?
Before we go any further, it is worth noting exactly what a pop-up museum is and what it is not. Essentially, a pop-up will be set up for a limited period of time in a location where no museum has really operated before. The curation of such a museum is also important but the key to it is the novelty of the presentation. If museum curators think that they can ride on the coattails of a successful pop-up museum and copy it at their establishment, then the lack of originality is likely to doom it to failure.
The time-limited aspect should not be overlooked, either. Part of what the Instagram generation are after is a unique – or, at least, limited – experience that feels vital. This is a crucial part of how the excitement is generated that leads to the buzz surrounding a successful pop-up museum. If one can be visited at any time, then there is necessarily less of a social media frenzy, even if one is generated at all. That’s why they need to both pop up and disappear.
Indeed, the location of a pop-up museum plays a big part, as well. Why? Essentially, the location could be anywhere so long as it is reasonably easy to reach. That said, the setting will ideally promote a thought process in itself. Just like public art that might be installed in an unconventional setting, so a pop-up museum ought to make a statement as well as reflecting on its surroundings. This dialogue can prove to be a big strength for a pop-up museum, especially if, of course, the setting also affords visitors some Instagram-friendly moments.
A Pop-Up Museum Case Study
When it first opened its doors in July 2016, the Museum of Ice Cream was already counting down the days until it closed. The interactive art exhibition was based on ice cream and other types of confection in a way that asked visitors to think about food and colour in novel ways. Co-founded by Maryellis Bunn, the museum contained a number of rooms with differing themes and colour palettes. Crucially, Bunn put plenty of focus on creating moments for the Instagram generation.
In fact, many of the arty exhibits were not simply there to be viewed and contemplated but actively encouraged visitors to take selfies with the works as colourful backdrops. Thousands of selfies were taken during the short time the museum was open in New York, posted to the most popular visual social media networks, such as Facebook, Flickr and Instagram. Since then, the museum has popped up in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco with the same selfie-taking effect. It has been visited by around half a million people thus far.
Of course, highlighting the success of a pop-up museum that built its audience through social media may seem like it is not that remarkable. For every successful pop-up museum, like the Museum of Ice Cream, it would be perfectly possible to point out another which did not achieve the same level of interest. The point about this particular venture was not that it snowballed so much as the fact that it was a hit from day one. The museum sold 30,000 tickets to attendees over the course of its first five days. Social media had made it a success before it even opened because it was marketed there on a tiny budget.
The Winning Formula?
Any museum professional who is thinking about how the case study of the Museum of Ice Cream might be applied to their own establishment needs to realise that there is no true blueprint for success on this scale. It is more a question of understanding the psychology of what visitors, at least some of them, are after these days. A pop-up museum might be an art installation, like the Museum of Ice Cream, but it could also be a travelling display highlighting a bigger exhibition at a permanent museum. It could offer a tactile or an immersive experience or a passive one, such as a video presentation. Live or interactive elements may feature but, there again, they may not.
What is required is novelty, a temporary sense of ‘blink and you will miss it’ and, most importantly of all, the opportunity to harness social media to drive awareness of it. Generally speaking, social media has become more and more based on the visual as opposed to the written, especially when it comes to documenting cultural experiences. As such, your approach must offer something enticing, visually speaking, ideally with that selfie-friendly moment that so many Instagrammers long for. Let’s put it this way – if people are willing to take photos of their meals out and share them, then they will definitely do so for anything of cultural experiential worth.
Harnessing the Power of Social Media Imagery
Now we have established the basic pop-up rules for museum curators to follow, it is important to focus on how museums can harness social media. Pop-up experiences like Happy Place, based in Los Angeles, have a social media profile of their own which are used to promote themselves. Set up by a live entertainment producer, Happy Place is an immersive pop-up experience that is designed to help visitors to escape from their normal life pressures for a brief moment and to experience inner happiness. It has in the region of 150,000 social media followers in its own right. Of course, given the wider outreach that social media platforms offer, more and more people see Happy Place tagged into posts and comments than its own followers alone, widening its circulation.
Happy Place is not alone. Happy-Go-Lucky was a similar pop-up experience-based museum which ran for a short time in New York. It, too, had thousands of followers even before it got going in earnest. Should it pop-up again in another form or another city, then these followers will be notified immediately. Wndr Museum offered visitors a much more traditional experience than Happy-Go-Lucky or Happy Place despite its undoubted playfulness and the number of selfie-friendly moments it afforded. Like all good pop-ups, Wndr Museum did not merely rely on word-of-mouth virality to spread as visitors started to post their selfies. The Chicago-based museum built its own social media profile with judicious use of hash-tagging and shared pictures.
If the pop-up museum trend has anything to teach traditional gallery and museum establishments, then it surely is that social media should not be taken lightly. Building a strong social media presence may become even more of the lifeblood of visitor numbers in the future. It is a crowded marketplace, too, so gaining a toehold now may well save unnecessary marketing efforts down the line. In this, a pop-up approach to museum curation can be incredibly powerful. It builds a museum’s brand and helps the public to understand – potentially, at least – what makes one establishment distinct from another.
Mobile Culture Builds Further Interest
Although the idea of a pop-up museum may seem like it is the equivalent of a fast-food experience when a gourmet meal is on offer, the fact is that some people need to try a sample before they will commit to a fine dining experience. This idea of offering taster museum experiences has certainly not been lost on the museum professionals at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Here, the powers-that-be commissioned an architect to create a travelling museum structure for them which could pop-up anywhere they wanted. Patrick Bouchain designed a flexible space that could be used for all sorts of different exhibitions and that, crucially, would generate interest wherever it went.
The Pompidou pop-up concept was developed in order to show off certain highlights of the main exhibition space in the capital. With a footprint of just 650 square metres to play with the mobile museum has already been set up in several cities around France. The idea was that the temporary exhibition would engage people who might never dream of visiting Paris, let alone the Pompidou Centre itself. In this regard, it has been an undoubted success. The pop-up concept continues to operate throughout the country and a further pop-up Pompidou Centre has now been established in southern Spain, internationalising the approach.
Is a Pop-Up Museum a Real Museum?
This is a question that is reasonable to demand an answer to. After all, some of the so-called pop-up museum spaces that you could cite, offer a visitor experience that is a million miles away from some of the established cultural centres in the major cities of the world.
That said, any museum or gallery ought to make visitors feel as if they have experienced something, be it wonder, awe or excitement.
Essentially, a pop-up museum will put a much greater weight on the visceral aspects of visitor experience as opposed to intellectual ones. However, this is a difference of emphasis and not the concept of the museum itself.
The Pompidou pop-up concept proves this. Essentially, it is a miniaturised version of the main centre. Importantly, this does not diminish what the Pompidou Centre in Paris offers, nor does it trivialise the experience for visitors to the pop-up version. If curated successfully, both will complement one another.
However, the question of whether a pop-up museum is a real one becomes a little more nuanced in the case of another concept pioneered in France, that of Micro-Folie.
More properly described as a digital museum than a pop-up one, Micro-Folie occupies a permanent space. However, the content on offer changes regularly so it could be said to have many of the same properties of a pop-up.
The concept is to provide digital access to some of the great museum establishments of Paris. Without having to fight through crowds or dash between different buildings in the heart of the capital, visitors can experience them via virtual reality technology.
Because it is located the outskirts of Paris, near to an airport, it offers the chance to enjoy some of Paris’ cultural highlights without needing to travel in. The Louvre, the Picasso National Museum and the Pompidou Centre all provide content which is shared in the digital museum.
The point is just the same as the mobile Pompidou Centre – to build interest among an audience which may not ever make it to the real thing. Bear in mind that this may not simply be down to time constraints which might restrict international visitors in their ability to visit a city centre.
It also serves to assist members of the public with additional social needs or, perhaps, who have mobility issues which prevent them from attending in person gaining an authentic cultural experience.
Altering Public Perceptions and Driving Conversations
A pop-up museum which stands alone can make people think in new ways. If it combines a clever juxtaposition of content and location, then this may come about in a perfectly natural way.
However, pop-up museum concepts can also start to drive conversations about their focus simply because they get people involved who are not traditional gallery or museum-goers.
When a pop-up museum curates hash-taggable content and selfie-friendly images, then the conversation does not restrict itself to attendees alone and it can begin to have an impact on wider public discourse due to social media posts.
If a museum has a responsibility to the wider public, including those who never attend them, then it is surely to inform. Part of that public education role, surely, is to re-contextualise and help people to think about often serious subject matter in new ways.
In Frankfurt, for example, the Jewish Museum decided to create a pop-up museum on a boat on the Main River in the heart of the city. The exhibition gave Jewish perspectives on modern Germany but putting this on a boat also allowed for ideas about refugees and the historic movement of people to be discussed.
A similar approach to opening up a public debate was seen when the Tate Gallery in London created its own pop-up museum outside of its usual gallery space. Staged over the course of the summer in 2018, the lawn that runs around the museum was converted into a pop-up community garden.
With the title of A Common Ground, the idea was to invite people to enjoy the experience of the garden – and the gallery, of course – but also to ask questions about the traditional, semi-public realm spaces around institutions and what they are really for.
The pop-up museum isn’t an existential threat to the traditional museum. Treated well, they can enhance visitor experiences and mean that a traditional museum exceeds its audience’s expectations.
The temporary nature of a pop-up museum is not an indication of their lack of value, rather the reverse.
A pop-up museum may make the public reimagine what a museum is. If so, then it should also make museum professionals ask themselves similarly philosophical questions.
If you want to drive the conversation about your museum or the subject to which it is devoted, then a pop-up concept could be a great way of engaging the public. It can be converted into pop-up exhibitions, experiences, performance artworks or just about anything else cultural you could care to name.
Crucially, the pop-up concept is something that the younger audiences feel they can engage in. In some cases, they feel like they ‘own’ the concept – that it is theirs and theirs alone. Sure, curating a selfie-friendly pop-up museum may mean that you have to leave out so much more content that you would ideally like to include.
Remember that the idea is that a pop-up museum is a mere taster of what is to come and should be thought of accordingly. In other words, the pop-up concept is not in competition to traditional establishments but a valuable ally of it.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.