Travel

Los Angeles’ pop-up Museum of Ice Cream has visitors shuffling from one branded photo op to another, stretching the idea of a museum until it has no meaning. By Linda Jaivin.

The Museum of Ice Cream

The Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles.
Credit: KATIE GIBBS

The story begins with the self-described quarter-life-crisis of an American millennial entrepreneur called Maryellis Bunn. A few years ago, at the age of 24, Bunn cast away her job as head of forecasting and innovation for Time Inc like a soggy old waffle cone to focus, she told the world, on what she loved. And what she loved was ice-cream. With business partner Manish Vora, she founded a pop-up Museum of Ice Cream in Manhattan.

When a journalist called New York’s Museum of Ice Cream “the Hamilton of the frozen snack scene”, he didn’t mean that it introduced diverse and fresh perspectives on American history, only that tickets were in insane demand. By the time MOIC opened its doors in August 2016, there was a waiting list 200,000-names long. The second MOIC launched in Los Angeles in April this year. Angelenos were no less enthusiastic; the LA season quickly sold out. Luckily for me, before my recent visit there, a cluey young friend, Caitlin, snaffled up four tickets: for herself, my sister-in-law Melissa, my 87-year-old mother and me.

I adore small, quirky museums: Sarajevo’s one-room Museum of the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand, displaying both the pistol that fired the shot that started World War I and the trousers worn by the man who fired it, is a favourite, ditto the sadly defunct Parisian Musée de la Serrure, dedicated to locks, keys and doorknockers. I’ve yet to visit Bologna’s Carpigiani Gelato Museum, which dishes out the history and culture of Italian sweet ices from Roman origins to artisanal present. But I’ve been to Barcelona’s Museu de la Xocolata, which does similar for chocolate and has a chocolate sculpture of the Sagrada Familia.

Pop-ups are pop-ups of course, and LA is LA. So it was with an open mind and mild expectations that I arrived with my crew at a converted warehouse the colour of strawberry cream in the downtown arts district one weekday morning. Tickets ($US29 for 13- to 60-year-olds, $US18 for everyone else) were non-refundable and non-transferrable; miss your designated half-hour slot for entry and the frozen-snack Hamilton would not sing for you. Even at 11am, the queue jelly-snaked down the block. The doors parted and out popped a chirpy young man dressed in pale pink pants, T-shirt and denim jacket – part carnival barker, part cheerleader – to induct us: Take photos! Have fun!

The entry foyer presented the first installation/photo op of the day. This was 3D “wallpaper” created by Brooklyn graphic designer Ramzy Masri, one of a number of young designers and artists whose work features in MOIC. The wall’s colourful flourishes and florets of plastic candies, cakes, donuts and ice-creams read like a spoonful-of-sugar riposte to Damien Hirst’s “Pharmacy Wallpaper” pill pop. There was also an Eliza Doolittle-ish cart full of foil-wrapped chocolates. Find a gold one and get a prize! Paws plunged, but it proved a thoroughly red and blue sort of day.

Next up was a flamingo-pink room featuring a bank of pink wall-mounted retro telephones. My mother, who was wearing a long pale pink jumper, was delighted: the entire museum accessorised her. I picked up a receiver. Down the line, the American comedian Seth Rogen identified himself as the “ice-cream fairy” and delivered a second, recorded pep talk. He told us to jump with joy and, at another point, shout out our favourite ice-cream flavours. A room of adults bounced up and down and yelled, “Chocolate Chip!” “Rocky Road!” “Vanilla!” I jumped but couldn’t bring myself to shout.

On to the California Room and, among other things, more wallpaper by Masri: this one a large, pink-tinged image of the iconic Hollywood sign photoshopped to read “ICE CREAM”. Here, more cheery, pink-clad people handed out samples from a local creamery. I politely declined, unused to so much sugar before lunchtime. No one else seemed similarly inhibited, happily indulging in the parade of sweet treats that appeared as we passed through the MOIC’s 10 themed and ice-cream-scented rooms: scoops of black cookie dough in waffle cones, mint mochi ice-creams, jelly bears, pink pancake ice-cream sandwiches.

The museum also serves up a smorgasbord of pop culture references. The “banana split” room featured a Warholian repetition of bananas on banana-scented wallpaper, the jelly bear room Jeff Koons-like sculptures. There were dollops of irony – or perhaps just karma – in the museum’s consumerist referencing of the work of artists who themselves built careers appropriating the artefacts of consumerism. The place was an ephemeral monument to a most ephemeral mode of consumption – but was it in any meaningful sense a museum?

The word “museum” is a Latinisation of the Greek mouseion, signifying a seat of the Muses and originally used for a university building: edifice combined with edification. Yes, the jelly cart man challenged us to identify the flavour of the green bear – colour can deceive. And in the mint “growing room”, the girl in pink urged us to sniff the peppermint, spearmint and Egyptian mint and smell the difference. Apparently, you could also spray the plants with sugar water and “positivity” but sadly I missed that memo. It barely passed as infotainment.

Maryellis Bunn told Forbes that she had wanted “to connect with millennial audiences in an experiential space” and thought, “there’s nothing new to do in New York City” even if the city had “institutions that have been around forever”. She used the word “museum” because it was “something people understood”.

If many other museums around the world have declined into mere backdrops for visitor selfies, MOIC is expressly designed for that purpose. There are captions to tell you the names of the artists who designed the exhibits, but little else. Aside from product promotion, its jolly procession of candy-coloured installations appear to exist solely for the purpose of the incessant digital scratching of “I wuz here” into the ether that is social media. Visitors struck poses, made funny faces, acted like they were having the time of their lives, their gazes all the while fixed onto the lenses of their cameras. Born to be wild – on Instagram, where popular hashtags for the experience include #authenticliving #liveadventurously and #liveunscripted.

Most of the staff, meanwhile, seemed so insanely happy to be working there that they came across as one scoop Stepford wife and one scoop Oompa Loompa. We visitors were the Charlies in the chocolate factory, kids of all ages sneaking dessert before dinner, swinging on swings, and gambolling in the sandbox of an imagined childhood of saccharine sweetness tinged the colour of bunny ears and ringing with the sound of cash registers.

Bunn is one smart cookie. Plans are reportedly afoot for more pop-ups in Miami and San Francisco, a permanent MOIC with a restaurant and spa in New York and an ice-cream themed hotel in Las Vegas. The gift shop, meanwhile, offered MOIC-branded merch ranging from $US5 for a rainbow pencil through to $US26 phone cases and $US36 bracelets all the way up through to a designer table tennis table for $US10,500. And for a mere $US180,000, you could get the place to yourself. Kim and Kourtney Kardashian visited the day after us; I’m guessing they didn’t queue, but MOIC’s tight-lipped PR person would neither confirm nor deny it. In fact, she told me she could only provide “approved information”, and kept referring me to the press release. I learnt elsewhere it was likely the celebrity sisters were filming for season 14 of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Only in one room is the message tantalisingly inflected: Peruvian artist Abel Bentin’s “Black Cone” room, as “approved information” titles it. It’s called “Black Chaos” nearly everywhere else – the artist is quoted as saying he wanted to explore the “chaos and corruption in something innocent”. It looks as though someone went on a sugar-fuelled rampage, hurling ice-cream cones at the wall. The head of a Hellenistic statue lies off-balance on a plinth with a cone, black ice-cream end down, violently planted on one eye: were we witnessing the end of Western civilisation or its apotheosis?

By the time we reached the much-hyped pool of sprinkles, my mood was 85 per cent cacao with thoughts of obesity epidemics, food waste and the connections between consumerist escapism and the rise of Trump. But a shin-deep pool filled with approximately one hundred million rainbow-hued, antimicrobial plastic flecks awaited our frolic. Thanks to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, of course, soon everyone everywhere will be swimming in an ocean of plastic sprinkles. This, I thought curmudgeonly, was just a preview. Removing my shoes, I followed the others to the edge. Caitlin jumped in feet first. “Don’t jump!” barked the Oompa Loompa. My mother sensibly backed slowly down the ladder; Melissa slid in off the side. I lowered myself in carefully, promptly slipped, and whacked the back of my ribcage against the side of the metal ladder. “Ow!” I cried. “No jumping!” snapped the Oompa Loompa. Melissa took an adorable Boomerang video of Caitlin tossing handfuls of sprinkles into the air. My mother rollicked. I sat grizzling, the sour cherry in a pink-tiled box of glacé fruits.

Afterwards, on a lawn next to the museum on which lay strewn beanbags and hula hoops, Caitlin, Melissa and I eagerly pounced on a pile of large wooden Jenga blocks and began to build a tower. Thoroughly absorbed and entertained, we played like real children do: rudely, competitively, delighting in each other’s pratfalls. I could have played for hours, but for my poor, contused ribs. I screamed, they screamed, we all screamed for – a cold pack.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2017 as "The shallow end". Subscribe here.

Linda Jaivin
is the author of 11 books including the travel companion Beijing.

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