How Selfies Led to a Museum About Ice Cream

Disclaimer: The Museum of Ice Cream is not a museum. It’s more like an indoor playground on confectionary-themed steroids. Instead of sculptures, it houses a swimming pool of sprinkles. Instead of walls covered in famous Renaissance paintings, the bubblegum-colored walls illuminate various shades of bright pink. Other notable decor include a rock-candy cave, a unicorn, and a rope swing surrounded by bananas. It’s not a day care center or your local ice cream creamery. Simply put, it’s an Instagram photoshoot set complete with props and bright colors.


Millennials and Museums

In the previous decades, museums have been the authority about artwork, artists, and interpretations of the work. Wanted to see the Mona Lisa? Then you would need to travel to Paris. The quality of photographs at the time did not do the painting justice. The museums were the only ones that could, and did, disseminate all of the artistic content. We turned to museums for guidance in the same way that we’d reference a phone book for the local pizzeria’s number or encyclopedias for a first grade project about zoo animals. However, now the digital age has rendered most information-holding books obsolete. We live in an age where Wikipedia has replaced encyclopedias. Google replaces the phone book. It begs the question: Do museums still matter?

For Maryellis Bunn, the founder of the Museum of Ice Cream, the answer is “not anymore.” She found fault with the way that New Yorkers engaged with the city’s institutions, and specifically, museums. She had a vision to transform the archaic and passive nature of museums to appeal to a selfie-obsessed demographic. The attempts to generate interactive museum exhibits with iMax movies were not enough. It was not only museums that she saw as outdated. Disneyland, too, offers minimal relevance to our culture. Disneyland seeks to provoke a thrill rather than social interaction. Unfortunately, this physical thrill from a theme park ride is no longer enough. We crave every follow, like, and comment that we receive from social media such that it creates a positive feedback loop and we always want more. It’s not only the purpose of Disneyland that fails to attract us, but also the duration of the experience. Quite frankly, many millennials even lack the attention span to spend an entire day at a themed park: it’s inevitable that we’ll divert our attention to focus on our phones and social media. Thus, came the birth of the “Museum” of Ice Cream.

The first MoIC opened in New York, and within the first five days of opening, 30,000 tickets were sold which sold out the museum. The San Francisco location sold out in less than 90 minutes. Evidently, people were pretty excited for a new backdrop to ‘gram. But civilians were not the only ones who seized this opportunity. The second museum in L.A. has garnered the attention of a multitude of different celebrities.

Beyonce, Jay Z, and Kylie Jenner all shared their experiences on social media.

Why is the museum so wildly popular? It’s not only about posting an aesthetically pleasing picture, but also fulfilling Bunn’s philosophy of “social squared.” She wanted to build exhibits that would encourage strangers to interact with each other, whether that meant asking them to take photos of each other or examining the artwork together. Bunn admits that “ice cream is just a way to get people in the door and feel safe.” After all, who wouldn’t want an excuse to take a picture in a pool full of sprinkles?

Art Made for Instagram

Jia Jia Fei, Director of Digital at the Jewish Museum of New York, has even broadened the scope of constructing museums for Instagram to constructing all art for Instagram. In the pre-digital phase, the message portrayed by museum-goers was: “This is what I’m seeing. I have seen.” Today, the message is: “I was there. I came, I saw, and I selfied.” Instead of taking pictures of art, we’re taking pictures of ourselves in these spaces.

The Museum of Ice Cream isn’t the only one of its kind. Down the road from the MoIC is the Color Factory, full of rooms that blend together similar interactive exhibits. One room is a giant yellow ballpit. Another room rains 100 pounds of confetti. Another is one giant a curtain of ribbons. The founder, Jordan Ferney, designed the space specifically for picture taking. While the experience of visiting is important, your satisfaction with the pictures that you take there are equally as important.“There were a few decisions we had to make,” she says. “Like, even with the lighting, where maybe a warmer light would have felt better to be there but a whiter light looks better on Instagram.” If you didn’t Instagram it, did you even go?

Instagrams from the Color Factory.

But is this still art? Art exists to answer life’s most difficult questions: Who are we? How did we get here? What does it all mean? But art like the Museum of Ice Cream is modified; it is also intertwined with commercialism. Tinder created an exhibit “Tinderland” that featured an ice cream sandwich swing and an iPad. Users swiped left or right to find their ice cream “match.” Dove handed out fresh chocolates to visitors. Brand sponsorship affects the meaning behind these spaces by altering the original focus of the piece.

As retail giants like Walmart continue to free up physical space in order to compete with Amazon, is this where physical real estate is headed? Will interactive museum exhibits optimized for selfies become the way our children learn world history? The Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream aren’t the only learning environments where we take selfies, and soon maybe we’ll be taking selfies to learn in the classroom.



  1. taylorvanhare · ·

    I love this post Kaitlin – I think you did a great job of analyzing this new wave of museums. The whole saying “if you didn’t Instagram it did it even happen?” is so relevant to our generation – and it is clear that our generation has a shorter attention span. I think these “museums” as you have described play to our selfie-obsessed generation. I do also agree with your point on whether this is true “art” – I would argue the latter as I think that what these “museums” ultimately serve to do is provide an experience. One isn’t walking away with a broader knowledge on extravagant art and the history behind it. It is more of a visual journey that is designed to make you want to share, like, tweet, and story.

  2. mattwardbc · ·

    Awesome Post! I really like how immersed one can be when they visit these museums. I definitely agree with @taylorvanhare about the limited attention span of millennials and I think that these places play into that. The experience is definitely key to gaining visitors and keeping them coming back.

  3. m_thompson19 · ·

    Great post! I love this theme that has been coming up in this class about the trends of millennials and how we’re basically turning almost every industry around by our preferences. Who knew museums could be so cool. The fact that we are consistently looking for something to share, to generate new content, ties back to our Facebook discussion on what the platform’s value proposition is and what is the most important aspect. Original content, bringing people back to the platform, is such an important piece of these social networks that institutions such as the color factory have been established and have been successful because of its tendency to promote original content. Pretty cool stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I have to say that I absolutely loved this post. I have never heard of the museum of Ice Cream, but the concept makes perfect sense. Great find!

  5. juliasmacdonald · ·

    Awesome post! It seems to me like the Museum of Ice Cream is picking up on some important trends of what younger generations want from their “museum” experiences. I know that going with my friends and visiting a museum, like the MFA or the Whitney, has become somewhat of a tradition for us. However, no adventure is complete without the obligatory Instagram post. I like the rise in the interactiveness of these exhibits but I question the substance of them (or lack thereof). While I appreciate that they are a snapshot of what is popular and a new form of art, I can’t help but wonder how lasting they will be. What I would love to see is existing and traditional museums adopting some of these concepts to revitalize their consumer experience. I feel like the museum world could benefit greatly from employing some digital technology and new strategies.

  6. Hilary_Gould · ·

    This is incredibly interesting! I have never heard of it, but I totally get why it’s been successful. The question you raise at the end about is this where physical space is headed is both true, but also crazy. I do agree that (real) museums need to become more interactive to keep our attention. My favorite museum growing up was always the Museum of Science and Industry (in Chicago) because it was full of interactive activities. While not specifically made for selfies, it definitely kept my attention more than one where I had to walk through, be quiet, and couldn’t touch anything.

  7. whitmcdonald2 · ·

    Kaitlin- I too, loved this post. How could you not love the idea of getting into a pit of yellow balloons or a pool of sprinkles- how fun! I found this topic to be very relatable, especially going abroad. I felt like if I didn’t post a picture from one of my “adventures” I didn’t go… very sad and odd to think about the pressures of documenting every move we make but it gives vast opportunities to companies and artists as art, photography, and even selfies are in fact pieces of expression! Thanks for sharing!

  8. ericiangesuale · ·

    Loved this post. I’m from New York, so when the Museum of Ice Cream opened it seemed like everyone and their mother had Instagrammed from that sprinkle pool! I definitely love the idea of a museum where you can take cool pictures and have fun experiences, but I don’t think (and am pleased) that traditional museums are going anywhere. I think companies are starting to experience that the cooler the Insta, the more likely you are to draw crowds. Think about “The Lawn on D” with the illuminated swings. I’ve never been there but I sure as hell feel like I have been! I hope that companies try to remember to keep the experience and photos the focus and not their brands being all over the place.

  9. ojeagle121 · ·

    That’s a pretty interesting idea. I think most art is an expression of self or a comment on a particular topic. The invention of cell phone cameras has made everyone an artist, or at least given a medium of expression that historically had high barriers of entry. Auto focus, auto cropping, auto aperture settings, millions of post shot filters … this makes it so much easier to shoot stylized photographs. Now, it doesn’t mean they’re any good, but that’s not really the point. The point is expression, and this is an awesome creative space.

  10. clairemmarvin · ·

    This is such an interesting trend! Companies and museums are working smarter, not harder, to market themselves and Instagram-ready exhibits and products are perfect for this. I’m sure we will see many other exhibits like the Museum of Ice Cream (see the Color Factory in San Francisco) pop up in the future. Plus traditional retailers like Magnum are even creating Instagram photo-booths for their custom ice cream bars! It seems crazy and ridiculous but in order to market in the 21st century, executing your Instagram presence effectively is key to acquiring new customers and keeping old ones coming back.

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