Manchester Jewish Museum
Wartime kosher ration books meant that the owners of them could get extra cheese instead of bacon – one of these books is on display in the Story Selector at Manchester Jewish Museum’s pop-up in the city’s Central Library.
“We built the storytelling machine so people can creatively explore objects and see our volunteers performing stories about them,” says Max Dunbar, the chief executive of Manchester Jewish Museum. The pop-up is at the library for a year while the museum is being extended and redeveloped.
“It’s been a great opportunity to engage with a whole new audience base,” says Dunbar. “The library is in the heart of the city centre and has more than a million users each year, so this has made a huge impact, even just from people learning that we exist.”
Another advantage to the pop-up is the opportunity to test out ideas. “We can see what works and what doesn’t, and this is informing the design of our new gallery,” says Dunbar. “We have old photo albums that people can browse through, for example, and these have been really popular.
“We also commissioned artists to work with us because we wanted it to be more engaging than just a few display cases in the corner of the library (though we also have these). Our synagogue is also closed, so schoolchildren are building their own pop-up synagogues here.” In turn, the impact of the pop-up has made the library want to work with other smaller museums.
Elephant teeth in Eastbourne, smashed ceramics in Plymouth and Egyptian masks in Wigan: pop-up museums and galleries are proliferating in towns and cities across the UK. They are in all manner of unexpected places, including libraries, supermarkets, pubs and food banks, but are mostly to be found in empty high street shops and shopping centre units blighted by recession and online shopping.
Museum displays, exhibitions and events, mostly related to local history, have appeared in shopping centres in Bristol, Leicester, Doncaster, Falkirk, Northampton, Kendal, Torquay, Lewisham and Leeds and many other places around the UK. For some it is part of their outreach programme.
Another important reason to create pop-ups is to increase awareness of and access to the thousands of objects held in museum stores. The Story of Eastbourne occupies an empty shop in a Victorian shopping parade near the seafront. The museum’s entire collection had been in storage at the town hall since the previous incarnation of the venue, Towner Art Gallery, closed in 2005.
“It’s a sort of prototype to gather feedback and give people an idea of what a permanent and bigger museum could look like,” says Katherine Buckland, the heritage engagement officer for Lewes District Council and Eastbourne Borough Council.
“It’s also about introducing people to the story of the town, particularly the pre-Victorian history, of which little is known. For example, elephants once roamed the area where we are now, and we tell that story next to our prehistoric elephant tooth.”
The biggest challenge has been marketing it and making people aware the museum exists, she says. “It’s not a full museum, and it’s tricky managing expectations, but we are getting a good mixture of residents and visitors, and have collected a lot of data.”
Making use of collections
Another museum with no current physical presence is the Museum of Childhood Ireland Project, a social history of childhood initiative that explores growing up in Ireland or among the diaspora. The focus is on finding a permanent home, but in the meantime the museum is raising its profile online and in pop-up spaces across Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“We have successfully used vacant retail spaces and display cabinets in places such as banks,” says Majella McAllister, the founder of the project. “We have displayed toys, books, games, clothing and ephemera. But it would be inappropriate and difficult to explore darker themes of childhood in these types of spaces. And even though it’s limiting because we can’t be interactive or have handling collections available, the public response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The Box is a major new museum opening in 2020 to coincide with the Mayflower 400 celebrations in Plymouth. During the building work, Plymouth Museums, Galleries and Archives held a pop-up exhibition about the second world war blitz on the partially empty fifth floor of the House of Fraser store in the city centre. It attracted 53,000 visitors.
“Being in a commercial space really boosted footfall, and the pop up gave us the chance to access and make use of our collections, some of which had never been seen before, such as bombed ceramics,” says Adam Milford, the senior engagement and learning officer at the Box. “We could also explore wider social issues and stories of the people who came to Plymouth during the war and afterwards to rebuild it – for example, the Czech and Polish pilots, construction workers and tarmac gangs.
“The relationship we built with House of Fraser means we can hold further pop-ups there and the old childrenswear department has been offered to us for a community hub,” Milford says. “The store, then run by Dingle’s, was the first postwar department store to be built in the UK and some of its company archive – including menus, photographs and a ledger book – is now part of our collections. So it’s been a two-way process.”
It’s not only in the UK and Ireland that museums have opened pop-ups. Railway station waiting rooms across the Netherlands have been temporarily converted into museum displays. And the Helinä Rautavaara Museum of world cultures in Espoo, Finland, has worked with Senegalese, South American and many other local communities to create an exhibition in a shopping mall in Espoo, Finland’s second largest city. Also, the World Rugby Museum opened a pop-up in Tokyo during the Rugby World Cup last year.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has been delivering pop-up museums about ancient Egyptian coffins across Cambridgeshire. An expert team from the museum took the coffins to pubs, shopping centres, markets, a food bank and furniture store.
“We travel directly into the heart of communities with real objects from the collection, craft replicas, hands-on activities, digital content and giveaways,” says Melanie Pitkin, a research associate of Egyptian antiquities at the Fitzwilliam.
“It’s a way of reaching communities in areas of low social and cultural deprivation,” she says. “We do this through the subject of making and trades – particularly carpentry and painting – which makes it very much a two-way experience where we also benefit from other people’s knowledge and skills. For example, in the Wetherspoon’s pub we popped up in we met many retired tradesmen who worked with the same types of tools that the ancient Egyptians used.”
Connecting across cultures
The Fitzwilliam team has even taken its work overseas, training colleagues at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to deliver pop-ups at the venue’s exit, at the Pinocchio furniture store and factory in Cairo, and a library and leisure centre in Damietta, the heart of Egypt’s modern woodworking industry. These were aimed at local woodworkers and craftsmen, and visiting furniture design students from Sweden also took part.
Back in England, the Fitzwilliam popped up at the Rosmini Centre in Wisbech, too, which sometimes fortuitously coincided with a woodworking workshop for people with mental health and learning difficulties.
“Preliminary research indicates we are making a difference to people’s wellbeing and promoting social inclusivity by offering this type of face-to-face cultural engagement,” says Pitkin. “We often end up in conversations that touch on people’s lives and personal stories, including tragedies. We have met many homeless people, former offenders, widows and widowers, and people with learning difficulties and mental illness who value our time and friendship beyond the subject of Egyptian coffins.”
An Egyptian mask is the centrepiece at The Fire Within, a cultural organisation that has taken more than six empty units in the Galleries Shopping Centre in Wigan, and is curated by the artist duo Al and Al.
Their aim is to connect with people who don’t go to museums and galleries. The mask is a woman’s burial mask and dates from the same time as Queen Nefertiti (c.1370-c.1330 BC). “It’s a fundamental part of the story because culture is the mask, or face, of a place, and people walking through the shopping centre are amazed to see it there,” the artists say. “The museum stores contain 30,000 objects in a giant warehouse and it’s always been our impulse to get them out of their boxes and tell their stories.”
Originally an eight-week pop-up, The Fire Within has been so successful that the council decided to keep it going and it now has a five-year plan for it.
“It’s a performance venue as well as exhibition space where people from Wigan are connecting to this cultural network that we’re creating with our partners,” say Al and Al. “It’s the size of Tate Modern but is a completely inclusive way to celebrate the town’s cultural heritage.”
The Fire Within has had 40,000 visitors since opening last May, and Al and Al have ambitious plans to make the town a cultural destination.
“Culture forms an integral part of the economic ecology,” they say. “But it’s also about how we redefine what happens in our town centres. It’s part of a jigsaw puzzle that’s had pieces missing for a long time.”
The online shopping revolution has many downsides for beleaguered high streets and shopping centres, but it does provide museums with fresh opportunities to reach new audiences in interesting and unusual spaces.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance writer
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