Spark Notes
Pop-ups vs. Permanence: Balancing the Past & future of the temporary exhibition
Rachel K. Strack and Trevor Cunnien
July 5, 2023
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This article was originally published on Blooloop.

With the rise of pop-up brand experiences and location-based experiences as well as traveling immersive digital installations, the world of exhibit and experience design is reshaping. The staying power of this trend seems to signal a shift toward temporary rather than permanent entertainment spaces.

Furthermore, many of today’s temporary exhibitions and attractions are driven by popular intellectual properties and edutainment-style appeal as much as by the depth of historic, scientific, or other content education that comes to mind in traditional traveling exhibitions.

However, the concept of the temporary show isn’t new to cultural institutions. These have dedicated exhibit halls to temporary in-house or traveling exhibitions for as long as they’ve been around.

With this trend of “limited-run experiences,” should museums consider expanding how much space they dedicate to temporary exhibits? Should permanent exhibits be a thing of the past? Or can museums continue to find a balance between the two?

Permanence equals stability

Permanent exhibits have long been the foundation of museums, providing visitors with breadth and depth on focused subjects. These exhibits often serve as the cornerstone upon which museums build their reputation and establish themselves as centers of learning. Think the American Museum of Natural History’s dinosaurs, or Pioneer Zephyr at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Visitors may return to these permanent galleries time and again. They can revisit an old favorite exhibit with friends and family, or find anew something they may have overlooked or underappreciated in the past. For many major museums, their permanent galleries are their identity.

Carnegie Science Center pop-ups
Luci Creative designed “Mars: The Next Giant Leap” to help visitors explore, think critically, and use their creativity to imagine a Martian settlement many years into our future. As patrons add their ideas to a future on Mars, the museum will add new elements to the Martian landscape as a visual representation of the landscape changes. Image credit: David Whitemyer, Luci Creative

Permanent exhibits serve as a valuable educational resource, offering a stable platform for focused lesson plans. Educators can plan also visits and design STEAM educational programs around these exhibits. This leverages the depth and breadth of knowledge they offer.

Still, “permanent” doesn’t mean “inalterable.” It’s also important to ensure museum exhibits best serve their communities. So, exhibits should undergo periodic updates and reinterpretations to incorporate new research and perspectives. While the educational value may not change much, these updates over time ensure that permanent exhibits provide fresh insights to visitors and are kept from getting stale.

Pop-ups equal popularity

Temporary exhibits, on the other hand, provide community members and tourists an opportunity to visit for the first time or revisit regularly with new content to explore. These exhibits are a longtime staple of museums. Any museum’s storage areas are chock full of decades worth of exhibition posters boasting a three-month run.

These special exhibits may offer a glimpse into a collection that’s newly acquired or rarely displayed. Or, they may host materials from far-off institutions. The allure of limited-time experiences, along with today’s emphasis on interactive installations and social media-friendly environments often resonates strongly with guests.

While museums have used temporary galleries for as long as they’ve been around, today’s traveling exhibition landscape represents a marked change from the past.

Van Gogh For All pop-ups
Van Gogh For All, designed by Luci Creative, is a location-based experience that allows visitors to interact with the vibrant and bold paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. From selfie stations to immersive video, audiences have a variety of ways to interact and connect with art. Image credit: David Whitemyer, Luci Creative

Browsing the top traveling and pop-up exhibitions, three things stand out: amazing, one-of-a-kind collections; immersive room-scale experiences; and interactive experiences driven by intellectual properties. Think one of the many Van Gogh traveling exhibitions or Harry Potter: The Exhibition.

With temporary exhibits rotating through galleries regularly, museums have an opportunity to showcase experiences that may present challenges when hosted for a long period of time. Exhibits on popular culture, intellectual properties, or current social issues are great for drawing in visitors.

Temporary exhibits may also serve as a gateway to increase memberships. By offering exclusive access or discounted rates to members, museums can incentivize visitors to become long-term supporters. Membership benefits such as free or discounted entry to all exhibits, special events, and behind-the-scenes tours can create a sense of belonging and foster a deeper connection with the institution.

Permanence plus pop-ups equal…

Permanent galleries define an institution, while pop-ups and temporary exhibitions offer a chance to keep things fresh. Museums have long used the temporary gallery in this way, but today’s edutainment landscape presents questions to museum staff.

While temporary exhibits offer excitement and innovation, it’s important to strike a balance with permanent exhibits. Rather than pitting temporary and permanent exhibits against each other, museums should embrace the desire for fresh content in combination with the stability of permanent exhibits designed around community needs.

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