Pop-up Museums

Review of the most recent Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group Meeting

From the wndr instagrammable experience to the Art Institute’s pop up bar, Dear Carmencita, institutions of all shapes and sizes have been popping up in new forms and locations.

Left to right: Tanner Woodford, Kendall Bruns,
Kevin Grady

The most recent Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG) meeting explored the world of pop-ups from the perspective of practitioners Kendall Bruns, Founder & Director at U.S. Pizza Museum, Tanner Woodford, Founder & Executive Director at Design Museum of Chicago, andKevin Grady, EVP & Head of Design at FCB Chicago. At the session, we unpacked the utility of pop-up museums and their potential pitfalls.

What is a pop-up museum?

Based on the presentations, I gleaned that there are three kinds of pop-up museums:

  1. For-profit Instagrammable experiences – examples include the Museum of Ice Cream, the wndr museum, and Refinery 29
  2. Small museums that move and iterate on an agile model – examples include the Design Museum of Chicago and the US Pizza Museum
  3. Experiences that advertise large exhibits at major institutions – examples include 1979: The Year That Changed Everything  and Dear Carmencita

The Agile Museum

When Kendall Bruns, a professional designer and product developer, decided to create a museum for his collection of pizza memorabilia, he used the scrum agile process to develop his space. The scrum agile process is when a team creates a shippable product based on a list of user-focused priorities in short periods of time, called sprints. The team reviews the successes and failures of the product and uses their reflections to create another, better version of it. The team repeats the process until they’re happy with the product.

Object wall at the US Pizza Museum

Bruns started his agile museum with a website where he posted photos of objects. His work was recognized by pizza enthusiasts, giving him the opportunity to exhibit artifacts at the Chicago Pizza Summit. At the Summit, Bruns observed visitors’ reactions to different aspects of his presentation and used his notes to refine his work in his next installation, a window display at a bar called the Whistler. While the museum was at the Whistler, Bruns carefully monitored the US Pizza Museum’s social media accounts to see which objects people posted about. The popularity of artifacts impacted his selections for his installation in the Niles Public Library.

Even though the US Pizza Museum now lives in a permanent space, Bruns still tries to apply the scrum process to his exhibit development. He moves artifacts around, tries out new panels, throws events, all with an eye towards his audience’s needs. As he said, “there were things I love that I did, but we didn’t get an audience so I gave it up.”

The Marketing Opportunity

In 2018, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) hired FCB, a Chicago-based marketing agency, to lead its first brand refresh in twenty years. As I learned at the September CMEG meeting, rebranding is about reexamining your mission and using your mission to drive your public persona. For the MCA, creating a pop-up was a relatively low-risk way to test a more open, millennial-friendly identity as part of the rebranding process.

Advertisement for 1979: The Year That Changed Everything

FCB created the pop-up 1979: The Year That Changed Everything to attract visitors to the MCA’s exhibition Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen. According to Grady, the pop up “convinced people to care about an artist they’d never heard of.” FCB centered the experience around 1979 because the year was both pivotal to Pindell’s career and an anchor that general audiences recognized. FCB’s retro-space was “curiosity-inducing;” it was peppered with Pindell-themed artifacts that functioned as “little easter eggs for people to experience.”

Open for only two days, the pop-up was far more important as a marketing tool than as an experience in itself. As Grady stated, “that sense of something happening for a limited period of time creates relevance.” A larger number of people engaged with the pop-up through reading about it than by seeing it. The experience received a huge amount of press and radically increased the MCA’s impressions on social media. Most importantly, the press surrounding the pop-up increased the number of visitors who saw the exhibition.

Expanding Audiences

According to Woodford, the biggest benefit of a pop-up museum model is the opportunity to reach unexpected diverse audiences. “Instead of trying to convince the general public to come find us, we decided to plant ourselves where the public already goes,” he said. “The accessibility of our galleries introduces us to people we wouldn’t otherwise meet.” Woodford related a touching story about a group of teenagers who wandered into the museum. Woodford spoke to the young people and learned they were part of a group for teens who had lost loved ones to gun violence. Partnering with the group, Woodford created an internship program for the teens. He taught them about design while paying them a fair wage.

The Design Museum pop-up on a Blue Line ‘L’ train

However, constantly changing spaces makes it challenging to establish a core audience. Woodford often has enthusiastic visitors go to the wrong location and give up on seeing the Design Museum. Furthermore, as pop-up museums move around, their audience shifts. Bruns noticed that when the museum was at the Whistler, mostly white yuppie passersby engaged with it. Now that the museum is located near Museum Campus, out of town families make up the majority of his audience. I wonder, how can a museum be accountable to its visitors and community if it doesn’t have a static community?

Pop-up museum or experiential retail?

The Dear Carmencita pop-up

Many pop-up museums blur the line between a museum and retail space. For-profit instagrammable experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream, the wndr museum, and Refinery 29 unsurprisingly lack the edifying content that ideally characterizes not-for-profit institutional museums. However, even pop-ups created by more traditional museums are often part of partnerships with for-profit entities. The Art Institute’s Dear Carmencita bar was located at the Chicago Athletic Association and sold drinks. The US Pizza Museum is located in the Roosevelt Collection shopping center, which gives the museum a steep discount on rent because it attracts new customers to the mall. In 2018, the Design Museum of Chicago partnered with a number of small businesses, local artists, and digitally native companies to create the Chicago Design Market. The market functioned as both a retail space and was driven by the museum’s mission  “to inspire, innovate, and educate through design.” With so many pop-up museums involved in for-profit work, I find myself wondering where to draw the line between experiential retail and pop-up museums.

The Chicago Design Market

Challenging the definition of a museum

It is beautifully ironic that established institutions create pop-up installations that risk eroding their power by questioning the very essence of a museum. Grady related that the MCA was hesitant to create a pop-up because its leadership does not like to associate the museum with products that are not part of the official curatorial experience. “They’d say the pop-up’s not art. I say it kind of is,” Grady laughed. To add onto Grady’s idea – the MCA would likely say the 1979 pop-up is not really a part of the museum. I’d say it kind of is.

Me with two other members of the Luci Creative team: Agustin Guzman (to my left) and Michael Gospel (to my right)

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