Pop-up museum craze hits Asia’s malls

Selfies and art come together as a counterweight to online shopping

December 02, 2019
(Photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

As landlords seek new ways to attract shoppers in the age of e-commerce, art exhibitions and photogenic installations are cropping up in malls across Asia.

In Singapore, the Bubble Tea Factory exhibition recently opened. Just down the road is The Dessert Museum, which originally showed in Manila.

Malaysia’s capital city had the Selfie Museum KL. Tokyo had Rainbow Sweets Land and, more recently, Tokyo Ice Cream Land.

The burst of activity in Asia follows the success of similar displays in the U.S., such as self-proclaimed museums dedicated to ice cream and pizza.

Unlike the American versions, which have occupied empty buildings, the Asian versions tend to be in malls, or at least linked to one. With a lack of available, affordable space in dense cities, these shopping centers are the go-to venue.

It’s not all food, fun and games. In India, a string of pop-up museums dedicated to topics ranging from cameras to migration have appeared. Bangkok’s Sri Mahasamut Ship’ floating museum ran for three months along the Chao Phraya River commemorates the shipping trade in the 18th century.

“These pop-ups are aimed at creating experiences and social media buzz to drive traffic,” says Angelia Phua, Director of Research, JLL Singapore. “They’re similar to pop-up stores in malls, but much more interactive and visual.”

The case for mall-seums

Pop-up museums partly are intended to act as a counterweight to e-commerce. Offering interactive experiences to attract shoppers and fill the gap between simply buying merchandise is critical for modern malls, according to JLL’s latest retail report.

“Landlords are aware they need to position their malls as a destination that offers differentiated experience and offerings that are unique to the mall, as well as craft fresh user experiences regularly to elicit repeat visits,” Phua says.

(Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

While cultural critics argue whether they should be called “museums,” the exhibitions are proving popular judging by the number of selfies and visitors. The original Dessert Museum in Manila saw over 7,000 people in its opening weekend last year.

What it takes

For now, they are just pop-up exhibitions lasting weeks or a few months. It remains to be seen if mall landlords will create more permanent fixtures.

However, there are signs of appetite. The K11 Musea in Hong Kong opened last month, billing itself “the world’s first cultural-retail destination.” Its developer, Adrian Cheng, planned the luxury 10-storey retail-and-art complex to appeal to brand-savvy millennials.

The space has been fitted out with elements such as a giant LED screen and a programmed water wall that can be used for film festivals and live concerts. It also has an entire level dedicated to street art.

Cheng, in an interview with Artnet News, says customers want “venues that provide value beyond ephemeral experiences.”

“K11 Musea is a luxury mall with similar sister malls in Guangzhou and Shanghai which also fuse art and retail,” Phua says. “But K11 Musea has gone further this time around – it amplifies what makes pop-up museums so special in terms of interactivity and wow factor.”

As online shopping continues to accelerate in Asia – e-commerce spending is projected to treble  by 2025 – pop-ups can play an important role for a mall’s bottom line, as well as adding a bit of fun.

“These pop-ups have really caught on, and are proving a big hit with shoppers,” Phua says. “I expect this space will continue to develop.”