The museum that defines the Instagram age wants visitors to ditch their phones

Is it still fun without a photo?
Is it still fun without a photo?
Image: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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The Museum of Ice Cream pops on camera. Celebrities like Beyoncé flock to the museum to pose amidst plastic bananas dangling from the ceiling. Parents snap joyful portraits of their children lying in a pool filled with oversized foam sprinkles. The most recent Instagram post of the museum’s co-founder and CEO, Maryellis Bunn, is a striking snapshot of the twentysomething entrepreneur reading a pink newspaper in a room designed to look like an all-pink subway car, bound for the fanciful New York City destination “Skybeca.”

But ask Bunn about her motives in creating the Museum of Ice Cream—which began as a pop-up installation back in 2016, and currently has locations in New York and San Francisco—and she’ll say that photos weren’t supposed to be the main event. “Our mission is, how do we build a world that’s so compelling that it outshines the world we live within in our devices,” she said on a recent episode of The Happiness Lab, a podcast hosted by Yale professor of psychology Laurie Santos.

On the podcast and in other media interviews, Bunn has expressed reservations about the way people move through the Museum of Ice Cream—phones out, filters and hashtags at the ready.

Museum of Ice Cream visitors stand in front of a giant piano
Image: Sarah Todd

In 2018, she came up with a special promotion that offered free admission to visitors who agreed to go to the San Francisco location phone-free. And in her recent conversation with Santos on The Happiness Lab, Bunn elaborated on tweaks to the museum that she hopes will reduce the amount of time people spend preoccupied with getting just the right shot. Examples included exhibits with hands-free eating—“if you have no hands to eat, you have no hands to photograph,” she explained—and rearranging the order of the installation so that the sprinkle pool, typically the most-photographed exhibit, comes first. All the anticipation and angst to go and capture that photo, now that it happened at the beginning, becomes removed,” Bunn told Santos, so that visitors can “really enjoy the experience.”

Bunn’s far from alone in fretting over how smartphones and social media may be affecting customer experience. Plenty of musicians, restaurants, museums, and historical sites ban smartphone photography as a matter of course.

At the same time, the Museum of Ice Cream belongs to the wave of bars, restaurants, stores, and other “pop-up” installations that owe at least part of their success to their Instagram-friendly aesthetics: bright color palettes, neon signs, snazzy and shareable murals, and other features that cater to the reigning rules of the grid.

And so there’s an added layer to Bunn’s concern that the Museum of Ice Cream is seen as “a place for people to take photos,” in the words of one Yelp review. The world is moving toward a new age of social media, and businesses need to start looking ahead to what’s next. “The landscape of social is very much changing,” as Bunn tells Quartz. “What will be constant is people’s desire to be in an experience. The platforms and channels change.”

These days, trends are starting to shift away from clearly staged photos and boasts about “doing it for the ‘gram.” Instead, the rising online aesthetic is one that gives the appearance of authenticity. Poor lighting or a pile of laundry reflected in a mirror selfie suggest that one is living in the present, rather than posing for posterity. Meanwhile, social networks are themselves in flux. Instagram’s getting rid of likes, and the social network of choice for Gen Z is TikTok, which rewards humor, dancing, and general weirdness, rather than glossy photos with candy-colored backdrops.

This raises an interesting question for the future of the Museum of Ice Cream and its ilk: If customers look up from our phones long enough to really process the world that Instagram built, will we like what we see?

The possibilities of posing

On a recent Wednesday morning, I went to the Museum of Ice Cream’s new permanent location in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. In the lobby, the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” played over the speakers. A few parents with small children milled about, but the majority of the visitors seemed to be young women wearing Carhartt beanies or puffy beaded headbands. (While the museum is certainly family-friendly, its biggest demographic is women ranging in age from their teens to early 30s, according to Bunn.)

Once our $47.50 tickets (including service fees) had been scanned, our guide informed our group that we were attending “not an ordinary museum, an experium,” in which “you use all of your five senses to touch, see, hear, smell, and, most importantly, taste things.”

Based on my interview with Bunn and what I’d read about the museum, I thought I might see people missing out on the experience because they’d been sucked into their phones. But whenever there was the opportunity for interaction, people were game—even though the few activities and sensory experiences on offer seemed to be designed for a very young (knee-high) audience. In a room designed to look like an all-pink ice cream parlor, a charismatic man in a sequined pink cape plucked two people from the audience to join him in singing the ABC’s.

But mostly, people posed—because that was exactly what the design of the space cued them to do. People snapped plenty of selfies in the sprinkle pool, certainly. But if they hadn’t, they would have just been lying in a circle with bits of foam, staring up at the ceiling.

A room full of fake desserts at the Museum of Ice Cream
Image: Sarah Todd

When we talk about the problems with taking endless photos, the implication is our Instagram mindset prevents us from being present in the moment and taking real pleasure in what we’re doing. If we’re too focused on finding just the right light for our BLT at lunch, we’re less attuned to how it tastes. If we just want to get a photo of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre rather than actually engaging with the painting, we’ve transformed it from art into “a photo opportunity,” as Scott Reyburn argued in the New York Times back in 2018.

But the Museum of Ice Cream looks its best on our phones’ small screens. There are few details to notice in a room filled with a giant keyboard or a corridor filled with rainbow arches, and little to spark the imagination. To be present and attentive in a place like this is to become increasingly aware of its artifice.

The existential angst of ice cream

The Museum of Ice Cream is meant to be a place of simple pleasures. And to be fair, the visitors on the day I went seemed to be having a nice time. But the museum has also been known to provoke existential angst.

That may sound like an exaggeration. But it’s a sensation that comes up frequently in coverage of the museum and its pop-up brethren, including the Rosé Mansion, Candytopia, and the Color Factory. Writing in the New York Times, Amanda Hess described her forays into the world of so-called “experiums” as “a masochistic march through voids of meaning.” The New Yorker’s Sophie Haigney noted that a Candytopia mock art gallery, featuring a jelly-bean version of the Mona Lisa, “filled me with psychic dread.”

Why does the Museum of Ice Cream make some people feel so empty inside? Hess, drawing on the work of 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin, posits that this new breed of installations provoke feelings of despair because they offer not so much an experience as a facsimile of an experience.

We pose among the dangling plastic bananas with grins on our faces so that we appear as if we’re having a fun experience. But the main purpose of the bananas is to take pictures with them. So is taking pictures with bananas fun? Does it even count an experience? Think about it too much and you may start to worry, as Hess did, that you’re “witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself.”

Put this way, it’s no wonder that the museum has its detractors. Still, I emerged feeling on board with Bunn’s desire to get people to look up from their phones and interact with each other more—albeit with a different idea about the outcome.

If people find creativity and connectedness in the Museum of Ice Cream, more power to them. But to me, it seems more likely that, sans Instagram, we’ll be more aware of the commercial emptiness of the space, perceiving the difference between the things that actually bring us joy, and the facades meant to help us mimic it.

I had one such hopeful moment courtesy of a staffer I encountered in the “melting caves,” a windowless room that visitors reach after shouting “Scoop scoop!” and descending a three-level playground slide.

“Welcome to ice-cream hell,” the staffer joked as I wandered by. His coworker reprimanded him lightly: They’d talked about not using that word. This was the melting cave! But there was no denying that the lighting down there was a foreboding red. The dripping columns suggested the space got pretty hot, perhaps from flames. And we were in the basement, after all.

It was a subversive kind of art appreciation: He’d rejected the prescribed narrative to interpret the space around him in a new way, and helped me to see it more clearly, too. In that moment, gazing in appreciation at what was either an artificial red post-apocalyptic sun or the eye of Sauron, I saw how the simple act of paying attention might help us all break free from the places where we’re lost, but not condemned.