New Thinking

Ice cream and rainbows: The digital savants reinventing the museum experience for a new generation

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If a pink swimming pool full of ice cream sprinkles and a room full of melting popsicles ignites your Instagram feed, this is your year.

The thought of going to a museum can often bring up school-age nightmares of being trapped for hours among dusty old displays. But a new generation of whimsical museums are emerging as Instagram-worthy experiences that visitors—especially millennial visitors—can’t help but share. They are often focused around one theme, and they sometimes last just a season. And while the people leading this change have roots in technology and innovation, they’re applying their skills to get us away from our laptops.

If Instagram is any indication, The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) is a good start, earning 22,885 posts tagged #museumoficecream.

MOIC popped up in Los Angeles in April after a sold-out run in New York last summer and is already sold out in LA. It’s part museum, part art installation, part house of treats, where each ticket comes with several tastings. Four times larger than the NYC version, the LA version features 10 exhibits all centered on ice cream. There’s a banana-split room, composed of 10,000 pink and yellow bananas hanging from the ceiling, a “grow room” featuring mint in a cacao-bean bed, and a Warhol-esque room filled with melting popsicles. But by far the most popular, and Instagram-baity, display is the pink-tiled room featuring a four-feet-deep sprinkle pool with nearly 100 million (plastic) sprinkles, topped with inflatable pool floats. Interactivity is welcomed here—it may not be edible, but it is swimmable.


Instagram: prankstahlife

Co-founder and Creative Director Maryellis Bunn, former head of innovation at Time Inc., chose the ice cream theme because it’s “democratic, universal and delicious. There is no politics and no age restrictions.” Plus, “there is no limit to the imagination.”

“People love ice cream, and they are desperate for experiences,” says Bunn. “‘Experience’ is a cliché, but we certainly believe that our millennial culture is changing the demands for everything from your eating, entertainment, retail and cultural experiences.”

Along the way, and this being LA, MOIC has attracted celebrity fans. On Mother’s Day weekend and the days leading up to it Katy Perry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, and Jay Z each made the trek. Seth Rogen loved the NYC iteration so much that he agreed to record the phone greeting for the LA version. Visitors can hear the Rogen message on one of many pink pay phones after they enter the pink-colored building and enter a pink hall (examples of the Instagram-friendly color trend of “Millennial Pink”).

Another museum that looks like it may get its fair share of social media attention is the Reykjavík Rainbow Museum, expected to open this fall, founded by Danielle Strle, the former director of community and content at Tumblr. Expect art, science, and a whole lot of brightness. No filters needed.

The one-theme museum trend isn’t limited to the West. In Ukraine, a software development company, MacPaw, opened a private museum dedicated to technology this month. While the MacPaw Museum doesn’t welcome the general public, it’s the site of various professional events and tours for company guests, including kids.

The Museum has 70+ items, more than half sourced from the auctioned-off collection of the now-closed iconic New York City Mac shop Tekserve. Collections include the full range of iPhone models, the “Think Different” poster collection, WWDC bags, and the first keyboard used to write the code for MacPaw product CleanMyMac Classic.

Oleksandr Kosovan, MacPaw’s CEO and founder, established the Museum because of his love for Apple: “Apple changed my life in many ways. Driven by Steve’s vision for better and simpler products, I was able to implement these ideas into our company and our products. I cannot thank Apple enough, other than paying this great tribute to the history of iconic Apple products.”

The cost of this thank-you? Just under $100,000 in total, including auction price, shipment costs, and museum design.

The underlying engine of digital culture is technology, which is the focus of, and force behind, many of the one-theme museums. One of the most beloved, also located in LA, is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, ostensibly celebrating human inventions.

Decades old, the museum is universally described as confusing—intentionally so. This dark cabinet of curiosities, evocative of Victorian-era natural history museums, is both straight-up museum and parody, featuring fictional creations alongside real ones. Users often aren’t sure what to believe and just as often don’t care. They are happy to be entertained. Despite the hoaxy aspects, it’s counterintuitively authentic, something that appeals to today’s younger consumers. Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s head of global creative strategy and co-founder of Vimeo and CollegeHumor, says over email, “I love that place. It’s so rare to find something that odd that doesn’t have a hidden agenda behind it (like a marketing stunt or something). It’s genuinely weird.”

Tech entrepreneur Roger Wu recently set up his own New York gallery, tentatively called the WuGallery, dedicated to “putting together stories utilizing well-known prints and/or furniture.” For example, writes Wu, “We have two copies of Roy Lichtenstein’s Cow Going Abstract put together end over end (so the cow goes abstract and then becomes a cow again) with a Tudisco Bubble Burger at the end of the chain. The goal is to ask yourself, ‘What are you really eating?’”

Some of the Millennial museum enthusiasm is infecting the most venerable old institutions. Nick Gray’s tour company Museum Hack approaches visiting museums in new, creative ways. Some of those methods include group re-enactments, murder mysteries, and scavenger hunts. (The company also does much of its work in corporate consulting and team building events.) Gray led his first hacks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his catalog now includes institutions such as the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. On LinkedIn, Gray’s profile is headlined: “Museums are f***ing awesome.”

“It’s not just an unconventional approach to museums that is on an upward trend,” relates Gray’s colleague, Michael Alexis. “Folks are more interested in unique experiences, and the museum is an extraordinary way to offer that.. Many people may see museums as boring, the kind of place you visit when your friends or relatives are in town. But another way to look at museums is a collection of some of the greatest artifacts humanity has ever created. When you learn the fascinating stories behind the art, you also tap into that bigger thing.”

Museum purists may scoff at this new trend, but considering how museums are doing in general these days—the Met has very publicly been facing financial challenges—whatever gets people to engage deeper with what’s around them is not such a bad thing. According to Wu, “We have My Amazon and My Netflix; why can’t we have My Museum?”

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