NOMA+ at the Ellis Marsalis Center (image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art)

The building that houses the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) sits at the end of a long, tree-lined driveway in City Park, which was once a sugar plantation. The dramatic entryway leads up to a grand staircase and a six-columned Greek façade. The structure is more intimidating than inviting, but the New Orleans Museum of Art’s new mobile museum, NOMA+, is quite the opposite.

Art museums have historically been tailored to the white and wealthy — determined by their location within a city, the demographics of the museum staff, the art on display and the predominately white, male artists that created it. But what about the design of the museum building itself? How can a museum’s physicality influence the way people engage with it?

As museums across the country are beginning to rethink how their staff, visitors, and programming can better reflect the diversity of their communities, the New Orleans Museum of Art is starting with its home city. NOMA+ expands the standard museum mold and reassembles it into one that travels to reach the seventy-two diverse neighborhoods of the Greater New Orleans area. By transforming the very design and structure of a museum, NOMA+ resists elitist narratives about who can make and engage with art.

The mobile museum takes the form of a discrete, white shipping trailer that folds up compactly into a rectangular box. Upon first glance, NOMA+ looks like an intriguing mix between food truck, tiny house, and garage workshop. Its function is not immediately obvious, but such enigma works in its favor.

NOMA+ at the Ellis Marsalis Center (image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art)

“There’s an instant intrigue about the design,” Nicolas Aziz, NOMA’s new community outreach coordinator, told Hyperallergic. “One of the teachers at Grace King High School, [which NOMA+ visited for a period], told me her kids feel like they’re getting some special, new, flashy toy at their underfunded school.”

The design plan came out of a series of community conversations facilitated by the Tulane Small Center for Art and Design. Manufab, a local architectural metalwork company, and their machinist, David Thompson, transformed the trailer into a functioning museum without walls.

Pulled by an SUV playfully decorated with Wassily Kandinsky circles, the trailer that contains the pop-up museum unfolds at three of its sides. The back slides down to become a ramp, lined by almost regal, yellow chains, inviting visitors to explore the space. The two opposite sides open into small decks with retractable blue awnings. Fundamentally dispelling the traditional notion of what a museum is white walls, deceased artists, artworks you must view at a distance — the modest trailer invites interaction with its matching blue chairs, foldable tables and a few rolling carts to hold art and supplies.

NOMA+ launched its programming this spring with the #EverydayNewOrleans project and traveled to six different sites around New Orleans and nearby parishes, including schools, community centers, and service organizations. The museum partnered with The Everyday Projects, a global nonprofit working to expand perspectives through photography and social media, and the New Orleans Photo Alliance, an artist-driven, photography organization. Aziz, along with photographers from the Alliance, led a series of workshops based on the Everyday Projects’ curriculum. These workshops engaged community members in discussions of photography, storytelling, and how images can break down stereotypes about place and reveal new dimensions of culture. At each of the sites, participants set out with disposable cameras or smartphones and shared their own stories through photographs.

The pictures in #EverydayNewOrleans are vivid depictions of the city as seen through the unique eyes of a diverse group, from high school students to adults impacted by homelessness. Selected photographs from each workshop are on display in NOMA’s current exhibition, Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, on view until September 16, 2018. The photographs are arranged side by side, resembling a photo montage, and together, they encourage the viewer to imagine a story that connects them all. Individually, the pictures show moments of everyday beauty as well as destruction, giving renewed attention to that which is often ignored or neglected. The photographs work in dialogue with the multidisciplinary artworks of six contemporary artists in Changing Course, who explore the city’s overlooked histories in honor of New Orleans’ tricentennial celebration.

Juston Winfield, Untitled [Six Flags Theme Park] (2017) (image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art)

In one evocative and haunting photo taken by Juston Winfield, an old amusement park sign stands above overgrown bushes and trees. If you look closely, you can see where the name of the Six Flags theme park was painted over. Below that, the changeable letters of a marquee sign reads, “CLOSED FOR STORM,” as if frozen in time after Hurricane Katrina left the park in up to seven feet of floodwater. The exhibition’s opening marked Winfield’s first time visiting NOMA. He brings guests by to see his work and Aziz runs into him there often.

NOMA+ manages to connect three invaluable parts of an art community: the art institution, the local artists, and the community members themselves, somehow blending and rotating all three so that the community, artists, and museums are not so distinguishable. At times, the community members become the artists, the artists become part of the museum, and the museum part of the community. By bridging forces that normally exist in separate spheres, the portable museum is successful in more than just increasing the diversity of NOMA’s visitor engagement—it dismantles the notions that “artist” is a term reserved only for those that make art for a living and “art” is reserved only for the works that appear in museums.

Erica Rawles is a writer and artist from Los Angeles. Her writing explores the overlap between art, culture, and history, and her visual art engages themes of memory.

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