A+ 21st-century trends

The Museum of Ice Cream: How 2017 changed the (art) world.

10 Mins read

It’s 2017, and three millennial pink ticket dispensers are mounted on a similarly pink wall underneath a sign reading “My ice cream name is…”. The dispensers offer such celebrity based puns as ‘Vanilla Cabello’, ‘Splitney Spears’, and ‘Dairyana Grande’. Somehow, this is not the most sickeningly-sweet thing going on at The Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles.


For £27, its lurid pink and Perspex doors will open to reveal all sorts of frozen sweet treat related shenanigans. There are mammoth ice lolly sculptures in varying shades of pastel and neon jutting out of contrasting white walls, ‘melting’ down them in streaks of colour. They reveal plastic bananas hanging down from clear threads, complete with two matching banana yellow swings for posing on, and an accompanying queue of women of all ages desperate to get the perfect picture on them. Neon signs in shades of fuschia, spelling out tongue-in-cheek ice cream related phrases hang on walls and a spiralling (you guessed it) pastel pink slide cascades from the mezzanine into the foyer. Most iconically, The Museum of Ice Cream houses its ‘sprinkle pool’- a pit filled with millions of plastic ‘sprinkles’, complete with heart-shaped floaties and a diving board.

The sprinkle pool at The Museum of Ice Cream – Maria Svarpova courtesy of The Museum of Ice Cream


The Museum of Ice Cream is a sight to behold, but what exactly is it? The Museum opened its doors in Los Angeles in April 2017 following the success of a smaller scale pop-up in Manhattan the year prior. Setting up in disused storefronts, the organisation creates ice-cream inspired immersive exhibits and installations.  Its website tells us about how it hopes to bring ‘to life the universal power of ice cream’ and ‘inspire imagination’. The museums were founded and initially self funded by Maryellis Bunn and Manish Vora. Bunn is described, perhaps rather unflatteringly, by Intelligencer  as today’s answer to Walt Disney. Anna Wiener writes that she is “disarming, blunt,” and “slightly intense” during their interview, and goes on to quote Bunn in referring to museums in the traditional sense as “dead” and “archaic”. 


It comes as no surprise therefore, that this is exactly what the Museum of Ice Cream is trying not to be; it calls´​itself museum, but it’s not- it’s more conceptual than that, Wiener explains. It’s an experience, it’s a “playground with no age limits,”. Meanwhile, its Wikipedia entry describes it as a ‘selfie museum’ . The term invokes imagery of a production line of young girls, queuing up to get their pictures and go, which doesn’t sound like an inspiring playground at all. 


Selfie museums are, in actuality, places set up for the specific purpose of taking Instagram pictures in. These can feature individual booths or rooms with different backdrops, such as The Selfie Factory at London’s O2 arena, or can be a little more elaborate, like we see with The Museum of Ice Cream. The Museum of Ice Cream is certainly far more interactive and immersive than some other so-called selfie museums, in that it consists of multiple rooms and large scale installations which encourage you to get involved, creating a far more dynamic and less ‘posed’ Instagram picture than say, just perched in The Selfie Factory’s manufactured ‘tube’ carriage, complete with pink walls and plush cow-print seating. The idea of a selfie museum, however, seems a far stretch from art installations which revolve purely around creativity and expression.


What cannot be denied is that The Museum of Ice Cream saw astronomical success; it was frequented by A-listers such as Beyonce, Katy Perry, Drew Barrymore- the list goes on. Forbes told us it was the hottest ticket in LA  . The company was valued at $200 million , with their own brand of Museum of Ice Cream inspired flavours being sold at Target  (flavours include, unsurprisingly, ‘sprinkle pool’). Sephora even brought out a line of makeup  in partnership with the company. The Museum of Ice Cream’s popularity was widespread, and this popularity in part was due to its incessant appearances on the social media accounts of its celebrity clientele.


Nicole Franzen courtesy of The Museum of Ice Cream


Kim Kardashian’s presence in particular was highly reported on, posting pictures of herself and her entourage at the Museum on multiple occasions. When it comes to taking the perfect selfie, one name springs to mind. Who else would we think of, if not the woman who released a coffee table book filled with her own Instagram selfies; if not the woman who has an entire episode of reality TV dedicated to treating her hand for carpal tunnel caused by stretching her hand too far whilst taking selfies? 


It comes as no wonder that the queen of the selfie herself, Kim Kardashian (accompanied by her sisters and children), was one of the most notorious visitors at the Museum of Ice Cream back in 2017. If there’s one thing Kim can do, it’s social media. As of June 2021, she was the sixth most followed person on Instagram with 228 million followers, and was accused in 2014 of ‘breaking the internet’ by PAPER magazine – a term now commonplace amongst avid social media fanatics. The Kardashians know how to sell themselves, and Kim is under a lot of pressure- not just to make her Instagram feed pretty, but to set the social media trends for the rest of us.


Kim’s attendance at the Museum of Ice Cream was widely reported. She posted herself via Instagram and Snapchat stories, and it was rehashed by various celebrity news outlets. Vogue , US Magazine , and Hello Magazine amongst others rushed to tell us everything about her initial trip on the 11th of May 2017- what was she wearing? What did she post about it? We needed to know everything, if just so we could replicate it ourselves. This was no longer about the ‘universal power of ice cream’- this is about the universal power of the selfie.


And the selfie was a pretty powerful tool for The Museum of Ice Cream. Scrolling through their location tag on Instagram comes up with hundreds of thousands of results; girls with immaculate hair and their finest Instagram-ready outfits leaning surreptitiously on rainbow coloured arches, laughing and looking away whilst immersed in thousands of sprinkles in the sprinkle pool, heart shaped pool floats clutched to their chests, pretending to fix their hair as they peer around a room filled with hundreds of plastic bananas, as if they want us to think they weren’t even expecting to have their photo taken.  


Instagram can be a pretty lucrative industry – some of the most followed accounts can fetch seven-figure sums per post, for example, Kylie Jenner (a member of the so-called Kardashian clan) can reportedly receive around $1.5 million per post. The phenomenon of the ‘influencer’, emerging in recent years, is someone whose sole career objective is to look pretty on Instagram, and make us want to be them. 


Molly-Mae Hague, for example, currently stands at 6.2 million Instagram followers and was recently (controversially) appointed Creative Director at online clothing store brand Pretty Little Thing. While she got her start through reality TV series Love Island, Molly-Mae’s success following the series came about through engaging her followers on Instagram. Always appearing in picture-perfect locations, with the coolest, most up to date clothing, the best haircuts, and the most out-of-reach fine jewellery and designer accessories. The influencer’s purpose is to make us so desperately want to be them that we will do anything to replicate the image they are projecting through social media. A way to do this is to frequent ‘Instagrammable’ locations to post pictures from. 


The idea of the ‘Instagrammable’ location has started to pervade every aspect of life for teenagers and twenty-something girls. Just a quick Google search for ‘Instagrammable locations London’ brings up hundreds of articles listing places to get the most enviable Instagram pictures; Neal’s Yard, Notting Hill, The British Museum all feature. But it can get more specific than that; we can also search for ‘Instagrammable’ cafes, coffee shops, clothing stores, restaurants – a mirror selfie in the bathrooms at Sketch has become a cult classic of the genre, with its rainbow light encrusted ceiling and egg shaped cubicles. 


Van Gogh Alive – Esme Constanti


The ‘Instagrammable’ space has leaked into the art world, as well, and following the astronomical success of the trailblazing Museum of Ice Cream, it’s an understandable shift. Now, in 2022, the idea of the ‘Instagrammable’ art exhibition is commonplace. Netflix’s Emily in Paris introduces its demographic to The Van Gogh Experience, when we watch projections of Starry Night swirling over the faces of the leads. The company tours the UK and major cities in other countries, pitching light proof tents and projecting animated Van Gogh onto its walls- when I visit, Sunflowers is the size of a small building, and our faces are drenched in the glow of its sunny orange. The cypress trees of Wheat Field with Cypresses towers above us, the sky in all of its impressionist glory. 

“Good pics are a must,” I had texted my friend whilst we were organising our visit to the exhibition.

“Especially for the price”, she replies in agreement. 


Now, in 2022, everywhere I look there is a new ‘immersive’ experience popping up on Instagram, and I can’t help but trace the exponential rise back to the Museum of Ice Cream. Similar to Van Gogh Experience, there is also Van Gogh Alive, alongside The Monet Experience , The Klimt Experience, and The Banksy Experience, which all offer projections of your artist of choice. Yayoi Kusama’s mirror rooms are consistently sold out at the Tate Modern, 180 The Strand focus almost all their attention on ‘immersive’ experiences with the just closed LUX and the upcoming TRAPLORD in collaboration with Sadler’s Wells. 


Richard Wilson’s 20:50 – courtesy of Shutterstock


Immersive art has, of course, been on the scene for a while. Think Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at The Saatchi, where a room has been filled waist deep with sump oil since 1991 after its initial construction in 1987. Or Beili Liu’s The Mending Project in 2009, where Liu embroiders at a table whilst 1500 pairs of scissors hang directly overhead, or  Ai Wei Wei’s one hundred million ceramic sunflower seeds displayed in the Tate from 2010-2011. There is a key difference, however, between these earlier examples and that which we are seeing today. 20:50 has a couple of viewing platforms, and is actually pretty difficult to photograph given the reflective qualities of the oil. Beili Liu’s piece would also not make the best backdrop for an Instagram post – a picture of yourself standing in front of a woman sewing? The newer immersive experiences seem, however, to be especially set up for taking pictures, just as The Museum of Ice Cream was.

A.A. Murakami’s Silent Fall at Superblue – COS x Studio Swine courtesy of Superblue

One such immersive exhibition is hosted by Superblue in London’s Mayfair. Nestled in right next to the Royal Academy of Arts is  A.A. Murakami’s Silent Fall. The walls are lined with mirrors, the floors are steel grates, the room is filled with big white contraptions that look a bit like lamp posts, and there’s a scent that we can’t quite put our finger on, but it’s not unpleasant.​​ Periodically, bubbles drop from above, and we are encouraged to touch them, hold them, pop them. We are handed a black glove each on our way into the gallery, so we can handle the bubbles. 

“They’re smartphone gloves,” my friend remarks as she scrolls through her phone. I’m not quite sure how this is relevant until she continues; “They know we need to be able to use our phones for pictures,”. The gloves mean we can still use the touchscreens on our phones, enabling us to take pictures of the whole experience.


The exhibit label by the door before we enter details how the installation the “earliest forms of life emerged from self-organising bubbles in primordial seas”; its heavy use of technology to create the bubbles, as well as its industrial imagery with steel grates on the floor invite us to think about the fragility of our environment, how the future could see all of our natural spaces made artificial- “a contemporary reading of The Fall from Earthly Paradise”.


“We saw it on Instagram,” a pair of sisters tell me when I ask how they found out about the exhibition. I had noticed them taking pictures of each other- holding the bubbles, pretending to walk casually through the space, in amongst the lights. In fact, you can barely move in the installation without worrying you’re messing up someone’s shot- it’s a complete minefield. It leaves us wondering whether ‘immersive art’ in its new, ‘instagrammable’ format, can be creative or expressive like 20:50 or The Hanging Project, or whether we lose that in our focus to become more ‘Instagrammable’.


Anica, PR consultant for galleries and self-proclaimed art fanatic, has another theory as to how immersive art has gotten so popular over the past couple of years, accrediting this to the certainty and disconnect we feel following the coronavirus pandemic. Anica tells me about how immersive art was an escape for her whilst fleeing with her son to a womens’ refuge from her abusive ex-partner. How something that forced her to focus on just one thing and engage with art was so important for her. 

“For two years I couldn’t go to my parents’ house,” She tells me. “It was too dangerous- we were living out of just one room,”. Immersive art, for Anica following a period of such hardship and uncertainty, is about more than just taking Instagram pictures. “It envelopes you… It forces you to really connect with the artist and reminds you that you’re not the only one who feels a bit crazy… We all want to feel connected,”, she concludes.

Courtesy of Superblue


She’s not alone in thinking that immersive art can still be exciting. When asked whether or not there is a newfound pressure on artists to make their work ‘instagrammable’, artist Toni Thornton tells me that she thinks that Superblue’s The Fall with its interactive bubbles and mirrors is amazing, actually, embracing creativity in a whole new way rather than limiting it; “to have that multi-sensory way in which people can become part of the exhibition,”. 


Primarily, this comes down to an accessibility issue, rather than one posed by Instagram. “Often, the art world feels intimidating – even as a successful artist in my own right,” but immersive art is a step toward changing that; immersive experiences are entertaining, they’re interactive – they’re for everyone to get involved with, not just those with prior knowledge of art.

“There’s so much value in making art more accessible,” Thornton states. “While history and tradition will always have its place, the art world will naturally evolve and keep moving forward with time and with new emerging artists,”.  


As Keith Haring said; “Art is for everybody!”. The Museum of Ice Cream has certainly changed the art world in popularising large scale, immersive exhibitions. Through influencers and celebrities interacting and engaging with this sort of installation, the art world has found itself a whole new demographic who want to interact and engage with art themselves.


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