The Museum of London Archaeological Archive pop-up in Brent Cross, London

Developing pop-up museums

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.01.2015
Practical advice on running events
The process for developing a pop-up museum will depend on the aims and the intended audience, but generally speaking it doesn’t need to have a big budget behind it.

The temporary nature of pop-ups means museums can get away with a “rough and ready” approach, with the focus on providing genuine access to people rather than high-spec displays.


Most museums decide a theme for their pop-up at the start of the process, but a more participatory approach might be to work with the public (visitors and non-visitors) to choose a subject to tackle together. This method is championed by Michelle DelCarlo, a US-based museum professional who works with organisations to develop pop-up museums created by the people who attend.

Deciding on the right location is key to the success of a pop-up. They can take place inside a museum, but choosing a public space outside the venue will help attract new audiences who might not otherwise visit.

Adam Corsini, the archaeology collections manager (engagement) at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive, says the key component to the success of its pop-ups programme is to hold these in large-scale public settings.

“Based in central spaces at large shopping malls, the projects attract a widespread, indiscriminate audience, many of whom rarely visit museums or travel into central London,” he says.

In 2013, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in the US published a guide to developing pop-up events with the community. When thinking about a location, it poses a number of questions to ask, including: is it accessible for people with disabilities and is it suitable for “walk-in traffic” or does the event need to be invite only?

The Essex Record Office, which held map-based pop-ups to reach new audiences, started by identifying locations where a suitable map existed, as well as areas with low participation.

“We then investigated local venues, and approached a local group to ask if they would work with us; this has proved vital in gaining local support and attracting visitors,” says Hannah Salisbury, its access and participation officer.

Partnerships and promotion

Like Essex Record Office, many museums form partnerships with external organisations to run pop-ups. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery worked with a local magazine, local history groups, libraries, the Museum of Computing and others to hold a pop-up at a local shopping centre.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s guide to pop-ups says working with another group helps to reach new audiences, provides additional support and can lead to new partnerships.

It can also help when it comes to promoting the event. Depending on the location, promotion of an event is vital. Being based in a busy shopping centre or market can guarantee high footfall, but museums may want people to come to the pop-up prepared with objects.

Social media, notices on websites, e-newsletters and posters are all good ways to promote a pop-up event. The Royal Air Force Museum (RAF) Cosford, which held handling pop-up sessions in its galleries last summer, promoted sessions online but found that many visitors heard about them through flyers displayed on the pop-up table when the session wasn’t running.

A warm welcome

Pop-ups should be set up to look inviting and attractive. DelCarlo’s Pop-up Museum blog includes a template for creating conversational pop-up spaces . She recommends that the space includes plenty of chairs for people to sit and chat, as well as tables for displays and to be used for writing labels.

Sweets, pens and paper, and soft, upbeat music  help set the right mood. And a facilitator can help encourage sharing and open discussion.

The Discovery Museum in Newcastle held a first world war-themed pop-up in a busy market last November, with the aim of reaching new audiences. Sophie Mitchell, a community engagement officer at the museum, says that the space was mainly used to talk and listen to people.

The organisers of the RAF Museum’s pop-ups found something similar. “After the first week of pop-up handling sessions, it became apparent that we were doing far more listening than telling in these sessions,” says Lisa Fawcett, the museum’s education assistant.

“There was an overwhelming number of visitors who wanted to share their stories with us. Reflecting on this aspect has highlighted the need to engage more with our visitors in an informal way in the future.”