Back in July of 2016, a far more innocent time, a flurry of amused and mildly condescending press marked the arrival of something called the Museum of Ice Cream, which had just begun occupying a fleet of vacant retail spaces in the shadow of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The project, whatever name you give it, was demonstrably temporary: a monthlong respite for sweaty and bored New Yorkers looking for distractions from the hot, Meatpacking District-filtered sunlight. It was clearly cute, and for the “low” admission price of $12 to $18 dollars, your friend could snap pictures while you frolicked in plastic sprinkles. Three years later, what seemed to be a totally innocuous Instagram scam has ballooned into something more like an institutional behemoth: The Wall Street Journal reports that investors have valued Figure8 Inc., the startup behind the Museum of Ice Cream, at $200 million dollars.
Dreamed up by a former investment banker named Manish Vora and Maryellis Bunn, a creative consultant who’d worked with Instagram and Facebook, the Museum of Ice Cream embodies the art of advertising in its highest and most insidious form. The space provides no function, teaches nothing and solves no problems, but its pastel colors and cheesy props suggest an almost-complete fantasy missing one key ingredient: you. “Everyone has a connection to ice cream,” Bunn told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “It doesn’t see gender, it doesn’t see religion.” The bizarre anthropomorphism of dairy products aside, Bunn’s clear implication here is that ice cream is apolitical, neutral and safe; a beacon of light in a world gone sour.
As it has expanded, the Museum of Ice Cream has launched branded food and apparel lines with heavy hitters like Target and Sephora. Its founders are playing with the idea of creating more “experience museums” revolving around different foods, and maybe even one day opening a theme park. You can scoff at this, but you’d be missing the business’s most brilliant flourish: incongruously labeling itself as a museum.
Museums, of course, are already inherently experiential. Mega-galleries are getting bigger and legacy art museums are updating furiously because institutions want to enhance the experience of viewing art for their visitors, thus turning them into repeat customers. The Museum of Ice Cream leapfrogs all this by proposing that museums don’t have to be sites of intellectual challenge, spiritual inquiry or even mild discomfort. A museum can just be a brightly lit room offering nothing, and people will still show up to see what the fuss is about. That, unfortunately, is the future.