I'm volunteering at the American Association of Museums (AAM) Conference this week and I've had the chance to enjoy some really interesting sessions. One such session was On the Road: Ephemeral Exhibits and the Visitor Experience. It was all about the emergence of transient exhibits in museums and the "pop-up" museum trend. The discussion was lively and as someone without a museum studies background, some of the theory was hard to follow, but since the talk I've been mulling over the idea of impermanent exhibitions and the concept of the temporary museum.
Each of the panelists were curators of transient exhibitions and museums including FAX at the Drawing Center of New York, the McCormick Freedom Project of Chicago, the Denver Community Museum, and the Torrance Art Museum of Los Angeles. Through discussion of their exhibits and museums, the panelists gave us insight into their own reasons for exploring the medium of pop-up museums and exhibitions.
One of the most valuable aspects of the transient exhibition is its ability to empower visitors and curators alike. The experience of visiting a fleeting exhibit experience is a lot like buying a limited edition print or attending an exclusive small-venue concert: you are one of only select number of buyers or visitors or concert-goers and as a result, you become a special person. The transient exhibit also offers transparency to visitors as the exhibit process unfolds in front of them. They can witness the full life-cycle of the exhibition: from creation, over change, through disassembly. From a curatorial standpoint transient exhibitions can be freeing. They can be a way to take on risk in an isolated window of time and if done independently, a curator can take on full creative control and bypass lengthy approval processes.
Interestingly enough, I heard more skepticism of the exhibition style from some of the presenters themselves. Some of the complaints against the medium cited a lack of history-making, catering to short attention spans, and bringing the museum experience to people who don't want it to begin with. I'm glad these concerns were raised because they're important questions to ask when creating such an exhibit.
More and more, contemporary artists are expressing a need for venues to show work that changes over time, is added to or taken from by visitors, or simply has a limited lifespan. It can cause a museum some anxiety to have to deal with that kind of ephemeral art, especially since museums have always been dedicated to preservation and conservation. And it's fair to worry about the legacy of these pieces if we can't add them to our permanent collections. In response to this, the Torrance Art Museum has decided not to keep a collection at all and effectually all exhibitions are of the pop-up variety. Even without a policy of non-collection, some of that fear of impermanence can be alleviated with an ever-widening range of ways to record transient experiences. After all, performance artists have been making their work permanent with video and photography since the invention of film. Likewise, temporary museums that have come and gone, like the Denver Community Museum, live on in website form with photos of exhibitions and details about the location and mission.
I understand the concern that these transient exhibits might be riding the trend of catering to over-caffeinated, over-extended, focus-lacking multi-taskers. That said, as long as the vision is not compromised and delivers an experience that meets the long-term mission of the museum, it’s less like enabling and instead giving more entry points to an institution. Offering a variety of ways to access a museum can be one of the most welcoming things an institution does.
Museums argue over audience-expanding initiatives all the time. Many include in their missions that they hope to engage new under-represented community members and expand their visitorship. At the same time, there also exists the mentality that if people want to go to museums, they’ll go and that it’s our bias as museum professionals that everyone should be interested in what interests us. My response is this: not everyone will want what we offer, but let’s give as many people as possible an personal invitation to see for themselves and make better informed decisions about their own interests. By placing temporary exhibits or mobile museums in public spaces, they become ambassadors to the museum experience. People who don’t think they belong in museums have the opportunity to change their minds if they find themselves running across a museum unexpectedly.
The concept of the temporary museum has really inspired me and I’m considering creating one of my own in the near future. At the very least, I’ll be doing more research and seeking out examples in my area. One such museum that I'm looking forward to exploring is the SF Mobile Museum and I hope to participate in their next exhibit challenge. If you know of museum popping up in San Francisco soon, please do let me know!