22 Dec 2013

Popup Heritage

Guest post by Roy Murray (@trimroy

The thing I like about being an information professional is you get never know what you might be working on. You never know what connections are being made. I was thinking about it earlier this month as I sat in a room brainstorming with an archaeologist and an archivist about the best way to mount an exhibition on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I was also thinking about it this weekend as I watched my twitter feed on the Solstice in Newgrange. How are these things connected?

I first came across the term Popup while working in theatre. I did a lot of work with site-specific companies, so the idea of transforming spaces is something that I am familiar with. Later on, I came across the work of Nina Simon and found her ideas about community museums very refreshing. When IWTN announced that they were holding a workshop about popups to bridge the gap between enthusiasm and information I signed up. 

The keynote speaker was Pat Cooke from UCD School of Cultural Policy who spoke about the history of cultural heritage in Ireland. At the heart of it, he suggested, was our awareness that time is speeding up and we want to hold things in our gaze for a while. He used museums as an example of an institution which are designed for temporary exhibitions. While the concept of popup museums was questioned later on by Ciara Farrell from Creative Limerick, it did open up discussion about reclaiming the word heritage from the Irish Tourist Board and what Brian Crowley from the Pearse Museum calls "museumification". At the heart of Pat's talk was the idea that cultural heritage is created by communities, not institutions. This contrast ran throughout the conference. Popups tend to exhibit user generated content rather than more authoritative information. As a personal example he used his childhood memory of a man in Kilkenny who spent all his time following behind ploughing tractors with his head down. Years later, he discovered that this man was an amateur archaeologist who specialised in finding new sites for the National Museum. When it comes to information, Pat suggested, the wisdom of the community can often gives a more authentic view than that of experts. Popup exhibitions always raise issues about professional curation vs crowdsourcing that sparks debate amongst the GLAM community. On the one hand you have the likes of the Folklore Commission who generate thousands of objective interviews, while on the other you have StoryCorps who use relatives as interviewers to create emotionally charged stories. This got me thinking about the builders of Newgrange during the Solstice weekend. Were they an elite group of thought leaders with a very precise agenda or were they a happy band of communal earth-lovers following their dreams?

With the importance of physical space to exhibitions, design was always going to be an important element of this conference. Barry Sheehan from DIT explained that good design goes unnoticed, and is often heavily dependent on a man with a van. In their case, they build their own portable display units which are adaptable to spaces. Like any sort of blank canvas, layout is important and this became apparent in the previously mentioned interactive workshop created by Dominique Bouchard from the Hunt Museum. She used the analogy of chapters in a book to explain how design helps audiences to follow the flow of the exhibition. From the examples in Dominique's workshop, Popup brings a completely different tone to exhibitions. While a lot of Irish heritage is grim and often stark, popup is more playful. There were lots of questions about words (16pt, non-serif typeface and not a lot of it). All of the speakers stressed the importance of not writing for your peers, while Pat Cooke remarked upon the use of photography to capture the heart of communities. What does design tell us about Newgrange? It has no settlement features so it would qualify as a derelict space, although it is a bit early for retail. The external design is not a perfect circle because it is flattened at the entrance. Is this to allow crowds to gather? The internal layout is certainly not crowd friendly, so access is certainly an issue. Art pieces are positioned at specific points, although some of them appear to be facing the wrong way. Lighting is VERY exact and the space has been re-used. Soil samples taken from the mound indicate that the landscape here was not farmed extensively when it was built. It was a place that people passed through without staying.

One of the areas that we explored in the conference that is relative to Popup exhibitions is storytelling. Popups tend to create multiple narratives, usually around objects. Dominique spoke about the use of narrative layers to access collections. Brian Crowley had already suggested telling stories by theme, chronology or from a modular perspective. Unlike other speakers she suggested that we start with the object first, rather than design. While she argued that people do not generally like exhibitions about "stuff", she remarked that they like stories about people told through "stuff". The Tenement Experience was mentioned by quite a few speakers as a model in this regard. It had low level interpretation and different access points for different users. The core idea, according to Dominique, is to use objects to tell stories about the past and present. The strength of Popup is that it has a history of telling "other" stories that are often neglected by institutions who want to tell the grand narratives. Popup caters to niche stories such as MONA and the Museum of Queer History. This ties in with what Pat Cooke was saying about immigration in Ireland and how it adds a different layer to the story. We can sometimes have too much pride in our own heritage, he suggested. So much so that we see it through one lens. This theme was taken up by Community Development Officer, Denise Feeney who stressed community buy-in on popup projects and explained how to go about accessing resources which enabled that. What stories does Newgrange tell us? Why did they deliberately source their stones from so far away? How does the artwork reach out to other communities along the Western Seaboard?

Engagement was another area that was stressed by speakers, most notably Bairbre-Ann Hawkins from the Butler Gallery who spoke about her early experiences in a cultural space and how unmoved she was by it. This helped inform their policy on extended engagement. Jenny Siung from Chester Beatty Library explained about the importance of their new programme for teenagers. While Brian Crowley was blunt about overdosing on art exhibitions and how it drives you to the coffee shop, David Teenan from the Source Arts Festival argued that youth engagement was essential for creating programme content for them. Again, the stress here was on being niche and eclectic. As Brian remarked "We don't eat off the tourist menu when we go on holidays. Why would we expect tourists coming here to do the same with our culture?". From another perspective, Ciara from Creative Limerick spoke about the practicalities of artists engaging with business owners (who puts out the rubbish, turns out the lights, pays the bills?). Marie McMahon from South Tipp Museum shared her experience from a recent community heritage exhibition which involved the ICA and fishermen along the River Suir. A speaker from Abhainn Rí Festival in Callan spoke about their concept of using the whole village as a temporary participatory space. Similarly, Newgrange has also engaged different groups over time and been used for different purposes. Along with its astronomical function, we also find mortuary activity. There is evidence for feasting there from the Bronze Age and deposits which suggest it was a pilgrimage site after the Iron Age. Today it attracts many different groups - archaeologists, new-agers, artists, teenagers and local farmers. All of them bringing their own interpretation to it and looking at different aspects of it.

Popup clearly covers a lot of areas and borrows from many disciplines. As an information professional it is the perfect place to try out skills. They can be constrained by size (e.g. yard sales) or by time (Granby Park) and they can range from the traditional (a library art exhibition) to the more outlandish (Burning Man). One speaker referred to popup museums as "a little bit of old stuff, followed by a coffee". Yet, could they even incorporate millenia long monuments? They all ask you the same question that Brian Crowley asked - What 5 objects would represent the story of your life?

 Letting Go? : Sharing Historical authority in a user-generated world, (2011) Adair, W., Filene, B., Koloski, L., Pew Centre for Arts & Heritage
The Participatory Museum, (2010) Simon, N. Museum 2.0

Image by gpoo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gpoo/2412677150/


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