Pop-up Museum in a Mall

When Coffs Harbour Museum had to be evacuated due to flooding, Director Terrie Beckhouse teamed up with local shopping centre management to bring the exhibits to the public in empty shops.

Coffs Harbour Museum's 2010 Bridal Gown Exhibition at the Palm Shopping Centre. Photo: Terrie Beckhouse

Terrie Beckhouse, along with the staff and volunteers at Coffs Harbour Museum, were understandably upset when their had to be evacuated permanently because of flooding of their venue for the third time in 13 years. 

As a result, at the end of 2009 the museum's objects were placed in a storage facility. However, not to be defeated, the museum's director approached a local shopping centre about using one of its empty shops to put on a display of bridal gowns. 

The management team at the Palm Shopping Centre was only too keen to oblige and on Australia Day 2010 a pop-up museum was born.

The Agreement 

An agreement was made between the centre management and the museum on the proviso that the premises could be evacuated within 24 hours.

All the museum's objects are insured no matter where they are located and volunteers were covered by the museum's public liability insurance.  "This was checked by the council's insurance officer, who assured centre management that we'd all be covered," says Terrie. 


"The challenges were trying to get everything up as quickly as possible with all the objects off site,' Terrie explains. 'It's always difficult physically moving objects from one place to another because you have to be so careful with the pieces. Some of the bridal gowns were incredibly old so you had to be careful with those.

"Volunteers needed to be trained so they could talk about particular garments when people came in and asked questions. Fortunately we were able to dip into our pool of wonderful volunteers to staff the place and they ended up being quite knowledgeable about wedding gowns." 

After running their bridal gown exhibition for almost six weeks, Terrie and her team were given 24 hours notice to vacate the premises so that a fit-out for a commercial tenant could begin. 

"This was a bit stressful," Terrie admits. "I called in a volunteer and the director had to come and help too, so between the three of us we were out of there the following day. I have to say it was quite difficult." 

Terrie says that a 30-day rolling licence similar to the one used by Renew Newcastle would have been better, but was nevertheless grateful to have the space. "We knew going in that we have to be prepared to move out when the centre management wanted the shop back,' she says. "It's part of the deal - you don't have to pay rent and they even paid for the electricity for us."

People Came in Droves

The benefits of the arrangement by far outweighed the challenges. Fran Thomas, who has been a volunteer at the museum for three years, says the temporary use of the empty shopfront was the perfect way to get people to come to the exhibition. 

"It made a big difference because we were so open to the public you couldn't miss us, whereas before you had to go and find us or be looking for the museum," Fran says. "We were in the shopping centre at the top of the escalator and people came in droves. 

"Instead of having 20 people a day we were getting 200, so we were kept very busy. A tremendous number of women and young girls came in and took photos and said 'I'm having a dress like this'. We had a wonderful response and everyone was very interested, mainly because it was there and was something else to do. 

"A number of people said they were wondering what happened to the museum so it's been a good way to keep the idea that we need a museum in the public's mind." 

Benefits for the landlord may not have been financial, but it was still a winning situation for the property owner and centre management. 

"Instead of having a dark empty shop that does fall into disrepair with no one in there, they have a space that is being used, that people are going into and seeing and they may get a tenant who think it looks nice and will take it," says Terrie. 

"There's nothing worse, especially in a shopping centre, than to have dark holes in your complex - it's not a good image for them or the town. I think they got value out of it by being seen to provide a community service. 

"We told customers we are so grateful to the Palm Shopping Centre for letting us have this space, so we were promoting them by saying how grateful we were and that these landlords have been really obliging and helpful."

More Exhibitions in the Future

Terrie and her team have been so impressed by the success of the pop-up museum that they plan to continue it into the future. 

They already have an unstaffed maritime exhibition in another empty shop and have plans to staff a radio exhibition, which they hope will attract more men as a counterbalance to the bridal gown display. 

"It's day to day we're hoping we'll get at least another six weeks for the radio exhibition," says Terrie. "Then hopefully by end of that six weeks we'll have an idea if we're moving out or if they are happy for us to stay on and we'll change the exhibition. 

"We don't want to go more than six weeks with any one exhibition because we noticed the numbers were tailing off a bit at the end. We have so many objects we'd like to show off so it gives us plenty of chances to pull things from our collection to display.

"It is really such a worthwhile exercise," Terrie enthuses. "To the extent that if I had a brand new museum tomorrow, I would still like to participate in the pop-up museum as a first contact with the public." 

Contact: terrie.beckhouse@chcc.nsw.gov.au


Palm Shopping Centre
Harbour Drive
Coffs Harbour, NSW 2450