Read any scathing opinion piece on the concept of the modern “hipster” these days and you’ll find the “pop-up” listed as one of their dreaded urban calling cards. From pop-up bars and restaurants, to shops and cinemas, I’m sure there’s probably even a pop-up “pop-up book” store somewhere in London. To be fair, some of them are good, and some of them are needless and contrived. We even had a contrarian pop-up bar in Glasgow that hung around for 6 months and then just changed its name to disguise the fact it had duped us all into flocking to sample its “temporary” wares. Whatever your view of the “pop-up” concept however, one that has been an undeniable success, is that of the pop-up museum.
To clarify, a pop-up museum is a temporary exhibition, displayed somewhere outwith the confines of a museum or gallery. These can be small like those at the Museums Association conference in Cardiff last year, and The Hunterian in Glasgow for example has taken objects to local shopping centres for the day, while a much larger example would be the Centre Pompidou pop-up museum in the Spanish town of Malaga, which will last roughly 5 years.
The pop-up museum is an effective concept because they allow new audiences to discover museum objects in a setting that they are familiar with. Take The Hunterian pop-up at a local Glasgow shopping centre for example. People, who may never have considered spending time visiting a museum, are able to sample some of what it has to offer, in an environment that they feel at home in. In essence, the objects are removed from their comfort zone rather than the individuals in the hope that they will inspire said individuals to visit their museum home in return.
Additionally, pop-up museums can give objects a new and sometimes more effective context. The Hunterian has one of the finest rock and mineral collections in the world, many of which were excavated in and around Glasgow and the west of Scotland. Taking some of these objects for example, back out into the communities in which they were found, helps people better connect with both the museums collection, and with the history of the areas they live in. Likewise, the Centre Pompidou pop-up in Malaga will return the works of some of Spain’s greatest artists to their homeland, accompanied by contemporaries from all over Europe, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the city as the Costa del Sol’s largest port town.
Dismaland, the latest project by Banksy, could be viewed as the pop-up museum at a cultural zenith. Curated by the acclaimed street artist, the shows premise is that of a dystopian theme park, and features works by an array of international artists. Each work tackles a different grim reality, from those closer to home, such as a pocket money vendor lampooning payday loans companies and a Jimmy Cauty model depicting a post-riot UK town. While wider global issues are addressed, among others, via a remote-control boat activity where you navigate around drowning migrants in the Mediterranean, and a “hook-a-duck game” where you have to extract the rubber ducks from a Gulf of Mexico-esque oil spill. At every turn, Dismaland engages the visitor with the most important issues of the day, in a fun, thought-provoking, and essentially jarring manner.
Conversely, Dismaland also highlights the history of its locality. The 6-week long art installation is situated in Weston-super-Mare, on the sight of an old disused lido, a walled-off beach compound with an amphitheatre, sun deck and swimming pool. The town itself is a famed seaside resort with a rich history as a beach holiday destination for the working classes. Banksy’s cheap and crumbling amusement park pays an oddly affectionate reverie to the kind of “knock-off” seaside entertainment that many do fondly remember from such holidays. In essence, Banksy has achieved the remarkable feat of resurrecting the lido at Weston-super-Mare, without actually breathing any life into it. Dismaland is no different in spirit to the abandoned Lido in the other 46 weeks of the year, it is simply, crucially, more accessible.
Where Dismaland does not fit the pop-up museum brief however is that the artist himself appears actively to disassociate it from very idea of museums in general. In an interview with the Guardian he states, “I think a museum is a bad place to look at art; the worst context for art is other art.” This to me is a ridiculous thing to say. Art in the context of other art is what a museum is predicated on. Take the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice as an example. The artworks on display there, while each important in their own right, are elevated by being displayed in the context of each other. Rather than a series of individual works, as a collection they create a story that chronicles the development of abstract art throughout the 20th century. Additionally, the collection not only also depicts the rich personal history of Peggy Guggenheim herself, but of the wider social history of Europe and America at the time. This storytelling ability is the unique attribute of a museum, and it is why they are essential.
To say, “the worst context for art is other art,” is to negate the idea of the museum entirely. But the world needs museums, because they are important to people as well as to artworks. While the pop-up museum can do a community the world of good, it is temporary thing. We are at a point now where more or less all museums recognise the need to serve their communities, an ongoing need that they are perfectly positioned to serve because these museums are permanent institutions. Pop-up museums can and have achieved great things, but they cannot exist without a permanent institution to provide them. In today’s society where the heritage sector is being hit hard by funding cuts, we need more things “popping up” to prevent things from closing down. But if you take the art out of the museum permanently, the museum cannot exist. Spend a few days in a world without museums and you’ll find yourself a real dismal land, at greater cost than a £3 entry fee.