Santa Cruz Good Times

Nov 27th
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You Are the Exhibit

ae popPop up museums turn Santa Cruz culture into art history

It was a glorious Saturday at Mariner Park, complete with blue skies, sunshine and a gentle breeze coming off the bay. Dozens of people were milling about the Museum of Art & History’s harbor-themed pop up museum looking at photos, news clippings and maritime artifacts. They discussed local harbor memorabilia, including a Harbor Master badge that was dented in the Loma Prieta earthquake and a well-used life raft, and swapped stories about boats, people, and unlikely happenings. Three times I overheard a story, shared by three different people, about the time a Piper Cub airplane landed in the harbor. When the pilot was told he couldn’t land there, his response was, “Show me the rule.”

Each retelling of the story elicits laughs and head shakes, and a bit of Santa Cruz history is passed along. So it goes at a pop up museum, where the visitors, their memories, their stories and their stuff are the exhibit.

Over the last few years, the Museum of Art & History (MAH) has hosted more than 30 pop up museums. Nora Grant, the museum’s community programs director, says the idea is to bring people from all walks of life together to share stories and objects with one another. She likens them to community potlucks, with the museum providing frames and organizational elbow grease, and the community providing the fixings. It’s a brilliant way to tap into community lore and artifacts that might otherwise just be collecting dust in an attic.

The idea of hosting pop up museums was brought to the MAH by Michelle DelCarlo in 2012. As part of her thesis, DelCarlo hosted a love-themed pop up museum. The MAH team was so taken with the idea that they applied for, and received, a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to launch a pop up series. They also created a free, open source kit for those who want to organize their own pop up museums.

“DelCarlo gave us the skeleton,” Grant says, “and the museum really fleshed it out.”

While the idea of an ephemeral museum is nothing new, Grant says that DelCarlo uses the pop up format to specifically enrich community engagement and move beyond the confines of a museum.

“A pop up museum is not specific to location,” says Grant. That’s one of the most challenging and the most awesome things about it ... It’s really redefining and rethinking what it means to be a museum.”

Among Grant’s favorite pop up museums thus far are “Growth,” at the UCSC Arboretum; “Handmade,” which the MAH did in partnership with the Bike Church and “Fabrica; The Wharf is in the Heart,” a celebration of the wharf’s 100th anniversary; one about failed relationships titled “F My Ex”; and “My Medicine,” where people shared stories of recovery and healing.

In addition to bringing people together, the pop ups are a way for the museum to connect with local partners. For example, the harbor pop up was hosted in collaboration with the Port District. On Saturday, the MAH, in collaboration with the Coastal Watershed Council, presents a San Lorenzo River pop up museum at San Lorenzo Park.

“The river is a hot topic right now,” says Grant. “People have a lot of opinions about how it can be restored, or how it can be brought to life, or how it can be cleaned. I’m curious to see how people reflect on the river,” she adds, “as well as looking forward to what the river can be.”

Everyone is invited to bring something river-related to share, which, according to Grant, is what makes a pop up museum great—you never know what kind of treasures will show up.

“The pop up museum has allowed us to bring the museum ... into the hands and minds of people,” she says. “What people will do with pop up museums is amazingly unpredictable.”

INFO: The San Lorenzo River Pop Up Museum takes place Saturday, May 10 at San Lorenzo Park, 137 Dakota St., Santa Cruz. Noon - 2 p.m. For more information visit

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