The Museum of Subliminal Objects: a Lesson in Pop-up Museums

Carly Syms


VIP + Marketing Manager

The frigid air was biting at my cheeks, and I could feel the warm blood running to my ears.

Not that I minded too much; this was just another one of my nightly walks, and extreme negative temperatures are part of growing up in small-town Canada. In most ways this icy stroll was much like all the others, but with one surprising difference…

I stumbled upon the Museum of Subliminal Objects.

Museum Hack stumbles upon the Museum of Subliminal Objects
Museum Hack stumbles upon the Museum of Subliminal Objects

“A Curious Relic & Unexpected Delight”

The Museum of Subliminal Objects is a pop-up art installation in Guelph, Ontario. The museum features multi-disciplinary surreal art – or at least it did for its “pop-up month” of August, 2015. Now? The museum itself has become a curious cultural relic in a town striving to build community in its downtown core.

Here’s why we love the Museum of Subliminal Objects…

  • The museum is a great example of a small town supporting its local artists: 15 creatives applied for features in four pop-up art installations.
  • The “storefront” seen in the image is actually a brilliant game of psychology and awareness.
  • The art is an eclectic mix: teapots that drink their own tea, a rubber chicken with doll hands and a top hat with googly eyes.
  • This is not your grandma’s museum… artist Stephen Yates re-imagined what a museum is and how the art is presented.

More on the Museum of Subliminal Objects and its collection in a moment, but first let’s examine the psychology of pop-ups, and how it can create awareness for your museum and collection.

Why Launch a Pop-Up Museum?

Your brain is wired to recognize patterns, familiarity and delegate these “repeats” to your subconscious. This function allows your brain to conserve energy and focus on what is new and unfamiliar, instead of constantly reassessing the same information. (Front Neurosci. 2014; 8: 265.)

Example: If you are chatting with a friend at Starbucks, you will eventually put aside the scent of dark roast. The coffee is still there, you just stop acknowledging it. However, if you suddenly get a whiff of smoke, you will be alert to a risk of fire.

A pop-up location works like smoke. Anyone familiar with an area is blocking out that familiarity: the same shops at the mall, the same restaurants downtown and the same museums on the way to work. In December, you recognize the pop-up calendar shop at the mall precisely because it wasn’t there the week before.

This cognitive awareness is the same fuel for sparking interest in your pop-up museum, and the Museum of Subliminal Objects adds a brilliant twist: it’s exterior and signage is designed to look like it has always been there. On the first take, your brain signals “woah, something new!” and on the double take, “the sign is weathered and it says 1980, am I mistaken?”

In reality, a jewelry store occupied the museum’s location for the last 30+ years. The Museum of Subliminal Objects gets bonus points for showing the art as a storefront, which allows window shoppers to view the objects as they pass by. You can learn more about the project here and here.

James Saper via Flickr
James Saper via Flickr
The collection at a new pop-up location in Toronto
The collection at a new pop-up location in Toronto
Photos: Fine & Dandy via Facebook
Photos: Fine & Dandy via Facebook

How to Create Your Own Pop-Up Museum

Do you want to launch your own pop-up museum? Creativity is a limitless beast, but here are some suggestions to guide your creativity and make a big impact:

  • Focus on a small collection of impactful objects.
  • Make it interactive by choosing objects visitors can touch and play with.
  • Use basic psychology to your advantage – this could include colors, numbers and other expected patterns you can break.
  • Pop-up museums are by definition ephemeral. How can you make this characteristic into a strength instead of a weakness?
  • Plan your visitor flow for a high traffic area. What can you do to maximize views?
  • Once you have a niche topic, niche down another level. People are excited by the obscure.
  • If you don’t have a budget for this initiative, consider charging for admission so a “pop-up program” can sustain itself.
  • Have a specific goal. Are you getting visitors excited to come to your museum’s next event? Could you invite bloggers and journalists to highlight the project in their outlet?
  • Collaborate! Find ways to work together, e.g., could your museum do a pop-up gallery at the city zoo?

If you want specific suggestions for a pop-up shop customized to your museum and collection, email info@museumhack.com or call our Audience Development team at 1-800-210-9676. We’d be happy to chat with you.

Inspired? We’d love to hear about what you create! If your museum does a pop-up location, send us the details and we may feature it on the Museum Hack blog!

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