The rise of the pop-up museum
Aditya Arya, a photographer and visual historian, believes museums are a great way to engage people in experiential learning, and if people cannot go to a museum for some reason, the museums should be taken to them. No wonder, in the past two years, Arya has organised over a dozen curated pop-up camera museums across Delhi-NCR in malls, clubs, schools and other public spaces.
These pop-up museums display vintage cameras, including field cameras, dating to 1880, in specially crafted shelves; there are information panels, labels, signage; often the museums also boast a period photo studio to give visitors an experience of what photo studio used to be like a century ago. His recent pop-up museum came up at The Quorum, a club in Gurgaon.
“A pop-up museum comes handy when you do not have adequate physical space and it can also be an effective outreach tool for institutional museums,” says Arya, the founder of Museo Camera, perhaps India’s first not-for-profit crowd-funded museum in Gurgaon. “Until six months ago, we organised pop-up museums because we did not have enough space at our Gurgaon museum, and now that we have a bigger museum, pop-up will be part of our outreach programmes,” says Arya.
Pop-up museums, which can be mounted anytime, anywhere, for a short period on a particular theme with an institutional museum’s ethnographic approach to curation, are becoming popular across the country, especially in cities such as Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, among others. While many of these are show-it-yourself community-driven expositions, others are organised and curated by organisations and individuals working in the sphere of arts and culture.
Everyday objects, photographs, artworks and oral histories are often part of these museums put up in clubhouses, community centres and other public spaces, with social media serving as the primary platform for public outreach.
In Delhi, which does not have a city museum of its own, pop-up museums showcasing the history of localities and communities have become a regular affair. The Centre for Community Knowledge (CCK) of Ambedkar University has so far has organised five such museums with a wide range of everyday objects lent by local communities.
“These pop-ups are decentralised expressions of culture, bringing people, objects, and stories together. The stories may be local, but they are, nevertheless, important and capture the lived experienced of a neighbourhood in a large city like Delhi, where different places have different cultures. Bawana, for example, is so different from Shadipur,” says Surajit Sarkar, associate professor and coordinator, CCK. “The pop-up museums ensure that their histories, otherwise largely undocumented and not archived, are not lost. In all our pop-ups, locals have played an important curatorial role.”
Many non-government organisations and community groups in the city too have adopted the concept with great zeal. Last year, Studio Safdar, an independent art space in Shadi Khampur, organised a pop-up museum called ‘Museum of Ordinary Objects’ on its premises, which had on display about 300 everyday objects, all lent by locals.
“One of the exhibits was a diary written by the grandmother of a person during the time of Partition. Now, this diary is not just valuable to the person, but otherwise also it has a historical value. Every object on display in the carefully curated pop-up museum had a story attached to it,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, Executive Director, Studio Safdar. “The experience of pop-up museum is very informal; it breaks boundaries and encourages creativity among common people.”
So, what was the idea behind the pop-up? “It was a way of looking at the community differently and to emphasise that every person’s story is important,” says Deshpande, adding, “A pop-up’s appeal also lies in the fact that unlike conventional museums that follow hands-off ethos, pop-ups allow people to touch and feel the objects. This lets the visitors interact with the object more intimately. It can be such a thrilling experience.”
Delhi-based Shapno Ekhon has been organising pop-up museums in CR Park, a predominantly Bengali neighbourhood, for the past two years as part of its oral history initiative ‘Neighbourhood Diaries’. Its first pop-up in 2017 at Chittaranjan Memorial Society was curated by children; the exhibits included maps, diaries, items of personal use, utensils and photographs. While most objects were over 100 years old, the museum had on display a 300-year-old brass vessel. Shapno Ekhon has launched a new series of monthly pop museums on the history of CR Park, titled ‘CR Park Story: A Retelling’. It has so far done six pop-ups on themes such as ‘Markets of CR Park’ and ‘Doctorspeak -Tracing the history of health care in CR Park’. “The idea is to build a closer community; pop-up museums allow people to celebrate and own up their history,” says Shahana Chakravarty, project manager, Neighbourhood Diaries.
While most of these museums are funded through donation or self-funding, Aditya Arya says he got the support of sponsors. “We are a non-profit and well-curated pop-ups require investment,” says Arya.
Like Delhi, the trend of community-driven pop-up museums is catching up fast in other parts of the country too. In May this year, Thane, a Mumbai suburban district, saw a week-long ‘Pop-up museum of the Fisherfolk Community’ in Chendani Koliwada. It had photographs by Dattatray Mahadeo Thanekar aka Diana, which gave an insight into the life of the community: its festivals, marriages, its engagement with politicians and film stars.
“We put up a pop-up museum on the Koli community because the government has not set up a museum on the community and is unlikely to do so. The Kolis are the aboriginals of Mumbai and their history has not been properly documented,” says Parag Tandel, a sculptor, who belongs to the Koli community and has been documenting its history in Mumbai for the past 15 years under a project called Tandel Fund of Archives. “We chose Dattatray’s work because he was a passionate photographer who belonged to the community and his photos evocatively capture various facets of life in the Chendani Koliwada. “The eight-day museum was visited by people who would otherwise not go to a museum,” says Tandel.
For ‘cycle-2’ of the pop-up museum on the community, he and his wife are collecting objects such as utensils, jewellery and traditional fishing equipment from the community. “Unlike an institutional museum, a pop-up gives a lot of curatorial freedom and brings in many perspectives. But a pop museum should be organised at a space that gets a lot of footfalls,” says Tandel.
In 2017, Godrej India Culture Lab, which refers to itself as ‘a fluid experimental space’, organised on its campus in Mumbai a three-day pop-up museum titled ‘Remembering Partition’; and in June this a year, a one-day pop-up migration museum tilted ‘Memories of Migration’. “Pop-up, the temporary and transient museums, have become a signature part of our programming,” says Parmesh Shahani, Head, Godrej India Culture Lab.
The migration museum, Shahani says, was an exploration of identity and how individual histories are not just concerned with time but also the geographies they shaped and inhabited. “The idea was to engage people and understand what it means to be a migrant in a megacity like Mumbai,” says Shahani. The migration museum used virtual reality 3-D exhibits.
While the Partition museum had on display several objects lent by citizens of Mumbai, it also exhibited a few objects from the Partition Museum in Amritsar. Shahani feels pop-up museums can supplement the efforts of institutional museums. “The country is quite underserved in terms of museums. I believe collaboration between traditional museums and pop-up museums will give a push to the museum-going culture in the country,” says Shahani, adding, “But curatorial integrity and audience engagement are very important for the success of pop-up museums.
Tandel says pop-up museums are a sustainable idea, and quite useful in a country where museums are generally ignored by the government. “They can also take care of the problems of space and storage that institutional museums face. We should think of sustainable museums, otherwise our contemporary history will be lost,” he says.