Inside the shell of an empty suburban restaurant in Maryland, three students paint murals one afternoon. Others work on exhibits that capture aspects of their lives: college admission pressures, social media influences, binge drinking.
In a matter of days, their efforts will come together as a “pop-up” museum made by and about teenagers.
The Museum of Contemporary American Teenagers (MoCAT), in downtown Bethesda, is expected to open Wednesday with 30 exhibits, 150 ceramic selfie sculptures, expansive wall murals and a stage for performances.
Its creators are mostly students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, exploring the world they inhabit — its stresses, stereotypes, struggles, humor and hopes. The idea is to explain teen life and culture. Their project may be a first nationally, they say.
“When we were researching it, we couldn’t find anything that was done like this,” said David Lopilato, the teacher overseeing the project.
One exhibit will depict a storefront for Brandy Melville, a clothing company criticized for catering to wafer-thin teenage girls, offering most items in a single size. The facade will be inviting but the door so narrow few can enter, said Camille Devincenti, 17, a senior who wants to show the toll of “unrealistic body expectations.”
Another will explore the political divisions and heightened fear that have followed mass shootings. Using a playlist of 911 calls and other sounds from those deadly events, it will show violence has become all too real for those growing up with it, said Yasmin Ranz-Lind, 17, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior who worked on the exhibit with two classmates.
The museum includes a forest of six-word poems and a basement called “the tunnel of teen fear.”
A mural painted by art students shows a teenager in the ocean, snapping a selfie beside a menacing shark, seemingly oblivious to the danger. Kiara Coleman, 17, paint brush in hand, explained the mural pokes a little fun at her phone-attached generation, though she emphasizes the devices are an important form of connection and “help us deal with the stress around us.”
Most of the project has taken form in the past two to three months, and — in a generation that has embraced the ephemeral quality of Snapchat — few seem bothered by the idea that the museum space is temporary.
One recent day, three students brainstorm about an exhibit exploring changing views of masculinity in their generation. They had conducted surveys and interviews of fellow students, drawing nuanced answers about the hookup culture, the objectification of women and the stereotypically muscular body associated with manhood.
They hoped to represent what they had learned by creating a toy replica of a male doll in a box, with labeling that reflected the ideals and expectations of being a man today. One possibility was a tag that would read: “20 percent more empathy.”
“My hope is that adults understand how people in my generation think about these issues,” Owen Bonk, 16, said.
Just a few feet away, Emma Lopus, 17, was focused on the phenomenon called FOMO — “fear of missing out” — which many teens experience as they check social media feeds to learn of parties and events they have missed or been excluded from.
“This shows how it makes you feel: depressed,” she said, gesturing toward a wall mural painted in dark colors. “You just want to be where people are.”
Her mural was painted just above a pit she said will be filled with social media posts attached to foam pieces — “a FOMO pit” that visitors can jump into. “It’s supposed to be like you’re kind of sinking in it,” she said. “You can’t get out.”
Hana Zherka, 17, weighed in about the effects of stress on teenagers, particularly when it comes to college applications. One exhibit she is working on will show photos of stressed-out teenagers, surrounded by flags naming top colleges.
“There isn’t any room to fail anymore,” she said.
The museum highlights a range of topics — gender fluidity, girl power, concussions, autism, women in sports, teen pregnancy, drug dealing in an affluent community. Students came up with ideas according to their interests.
“When my parents heard about it and their friends, they were very excited,” said Malaika Bhayana, 16, a junior involved through classes and as the organizer of a Dec. 14 debate planned at the museum. “A lot of people have negative stereotypes about our generation, and a whole museum put up by students is really awesome.”
Developing a major exhibit typically takes at least three years, which makes the project’s turnaround of just a couple of months “absolutely remarkable,” said Joanne Gernstein London, a former curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum who has a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High and volunteered to help with the project.
The museum is expected to be open Wednesday through Saturday and Dec. 14-16, with themes that change day-to-day, including changing the world, literature, music, and gender and sexuality.
The project was sparked after Lopilato, a teacher at the high school, assigned his International Baccalaureate anthropology classes last year to design a museum exhibit that would help people understand teen culture.
He was so impressed by students’ work he wondered whether there was a way to do more. He looked for spaces outside of school that could be borrowed, raised the idea with this year’s anthropology students and worked with a real estate company.
Then he remembered a major construction project along Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda that will one day be Marriott’s new headquarters and a hotel.
Lopilato said he contacted the president of Marriott, Arne Sorenson, and Sorenson put him in touch with Davin Driskill, a senior vice president at the Bernstein Cos., a longtime D.C. real estate firm that owns the property being developed, which includes the old site of the Japanese restaurant Tako Grill, now relocated.
It has not affected the timeline of the Marriott project.
“We were happy to support the school and the students with donating the space,” Driskill said. “It seems like a great venue for their vision.”
Students took the idea and ran with it, Lopilato said. “Once I had a place, they did not need more cajoling,” he said.
Students from other classes have joined in — art, theater, English, technology, Spanish — and Lopilato estimates a few hundred are involved.
Funding has come from donations made by students, parents, the PTSA and crowdsourcing, said Narek Grigorian, 17, the project’s business manager. The museum is expected to cost about $2,500, largely for construction materials, sound equipment, projectors, digital picture frames and a first-night reception, he said.
Grigorian and others say they would love to see the project become something bigger and inspire teenagers around the country — perhaps even as a traveling exhibition that would grow as students from other places added their own creations.
“That would be amazing,” Devincenti said. “It would be cool because we could start a new movement.”