Pop-up Mu­se­ums for the Selfie Gen­er­a­tion

Pop-up mu­seum cu­ra­tors seem to un­der­stand a deeper quandary fac­ing many of to­day’s spec­ta­tors: If you didn’t In­sta­gram it, did it even hap­pen?


The last cou­ple of years has wit­nessed an un­prece­dented surge in im­mer­sive, highly pho­to­genic ex­hi­bi­tions, from teamLab’s Tran­scend­ing Bound­aries at Lon­don’s Pace Gallery to Yayoi Kusama’s trav­el­ing In­fin­ity Mir­rors and Rain Room. Now the lat­est wave of ‘pop-up’ mu­se­ums, short-run ex­hi­bi­tions of­ten set up in va­cant real es­tate spa­ces, are bring­ing the In­sta-game to new lev­els. The Mu­seum of Ice Cream, which de­buted in San Fran­cisco in 2016, in­cluded such In­sta-friendly dis­plays as sus­pended ba­nanas, gi­ant cher­ries, and a rain­bow sprin­kle pool, and with over 125,000 hash­tagged posts, it is con­sid­ered one of the most In­sta­grammed ex­hi­bi­tions ever. New York’s lat­est pop-up sen­sa­tion, a glit­ter­ing 20,000 square foot play­land called the Color Fac­tory, even comes with built-in selfie ma­chines. Vis­i­tors are given a per­son­al­ized bar­code as­signed to their email or phone num­ber, and in the more In­sta­grammable rooms – say the ones filled with shiny bal­loons or a belt of rain­bow mac­a­roons – they sim­ply swipe the bar­code and a cam­era is prompted to count down from five. Pic­tures are sent in­stantly. Ac­cord­ing to Color Fac­tory founders, the in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibit aims to ‘cel­e­brate the dis­cov­ery, serendip­ity and gen­eros­ity of color’, and col­lab­o­rat­ing artists en­gage the senses via col­or­ful in­stal­la­tions in­clud­ing a field of geo­met­ric blos­soms, col­or­ful slid­ing screens and a lu­mi­nous dance floor. But while such pop-up in­stal­la­tions suc­ceed in tan­ta­liz­ing view­ers, whether they merit the term ‘mu­seum’ re­mains up for de­bate. “These shows are sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ences, not con­cep­tual or crit­i­cal ones,” says Mr. Glen Helfand, art critic and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of vis­ual and crit­i­cal stud­ies and Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts. Mr. Helfand says so­cial me­dia and dig­i­tal cul­ture have cul­ti­vated an at­ti­tude for in­creas­ingly quick con­sump­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion. “We want to im­me­di­ately see and share, but not nec­es­sar­ily di­gest.”

Not all pop-ups claim to be mu­se­ums, though. Man­hat­tan’s Rosé Man­sion bills it­self as a wine-tast­ing ex­pe­ri­ence where vis­i­tors can tra­verse 14 rooms in­spired by the pink wine. Co-founder Mr. Tyler Bal­liet has a back­ground in throw­ing large-scale wine tast­ings and says he wants par­tic­i­pants to learn some­thing while also tak­ing ad­van­tage of photo ops with a gi­ant bath­tub of roses. “We’re liv­ing in an age where vi­su­als are re­ally im­por­tant, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Mr. Bal­liet says. How­ever you choose to cat­e­go­rize In­sta-ex­hi­bi­tions, they are prov­ing highly pop­u­lar. The Color Fac­tory pre­vi­ously en­joyed an eight-month run in San Fran­cisco. The first edi­tion of the ex­hibit was meant to last a month, but ended up be­ing so sought-after that the web­page host­ing the ticket sales tem­po­rar­ily crashed. Sim­i­larly, when the Mu­seum of Ice Cream an­nounced its ar­rival to the city, tick­ets sold out within min­utes. The trend is also tak­ing hold across the At­lantic. In July, culi­nary arts stu­dio Bom­pas and Parr opened a pop-up ice cream mu­seum in Lon­don’s King’s Cross. The stu­dio is best known for stag­ing food-based stunts like clouds of gin or jelly repli­cas of the Houses of Par­lia­ment. With ‘SCOOP: A Won­der­ful Ice Cream World’ they prom­ise to ‘bring your fa­vorite dessert to life in a to­tal sen­sory im­mer­sion’. But co-founder Mr. Sam Bom­pas says SCOOP is dif­fer­ent from its Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts. “The pop-up shows we’ve seen in San Fran­cisco and New York aren’t much cop in terms of in­spi­ra­tion,” he says. “There is not the depth of re­search, science, knowl­edge that we would reg­u­larly look for.” SCOOP aims to plunge at­ten­dees into ice cream’s fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory. 2018 is an im­por­tant year, Mr. Bom­pas says, as it’s the 300th an­niver­sary of the first printed ice cream recipe. At the show vis­i­tors can view a col­lec­tion of Vic­to­rian ice-cream moulds, learn about the in­ven­tion of the ice cream cone, and make DIY ice cream at the knee of Agnes B Mar­shall, one of the culi­nary pioneers of the 19th cen­tury. “For us the best ex­hi­bi­tions in­form, en­ter­tain and ul­ti­mately in­spire,” says Mr. Bom­pas. “Vis­i­tors will have left, not only learn­ing about the glo­ri­ous his­tory of ice-cream, eat­ing their way through his­tory but also learn­ing how to avoid brain-freeze for the rest of their life, based on con­tem­po­rary science.”

But just be­cause it’s ed­u­ca­tional, that doesn’t mean it can’t be share­able, and the pink ex­hi­bi­tion walls of­fer plenty of eye candy. One el­e­ment of the ex­hi­bi­tion uses the medium of pow­er­ful laser lights to show at­ten­dees what goes on in the brain as they taste Ben & Jerry’s Moo-pho­ria ice cream. “The light ice-cream stim­u­lates a spec­tac­u­lar re­ac­tion when you taste it,” Mr. Bom­pas says. In the fu­ture, he be­lieves the pop-up medium will evolve and deepen and be­come more like con­ven­tional mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions. And in turn mu­seum cu­ra­tors will learn the best tricks of the pop­ups to help pop­u­lar­ize their shows. One trick ap­pears to be seiz­ing on a truth that more-tra­di­tional mu­se­ums are still com­ing to terms with: View­ers want to feel they are part of the ex­hi­bi­tion. “It tips the bal­ance of power and makes the ex­pe­ri­ence more demo­cratic on some lev­els,” says Dr. Kylie Budge, a se­nior re­search fel­low at Western Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity. “There’s an el­e­ment of co-cre­ation in­volved.”

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