Last week, as I lay prostrate in a pool of rubber sprinkles at Soho’s Museum of Ice Cream, I closed my eyes and contemplated one of the great philosophical questions of our age: If you lie in a pool of rubber sprinkles without a smartphone to capture it, is it like you never laid in a pool of rubber sprinkles at all?
If you’ve been on Instagram in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a photo from the Museum of Ice Cream, an interactive multi-sensory exhibit devoted, as the name indicates, to ice cream. It’s become a social media sensation since it first opened in 2016, launching a wave of pop-ups around the country (and, as of December 2019, a brand-new space in Soho). Imitators include the Color Factory (“an interactive exhibit that celebrates the discovery, serendipity and generosity of color”), the Rosé Mansion (“an interactive wine tasting adventure that combines a wine bar, an Insta-worthy amusement park, and a science museum into one epic dreampark”), and the Egg House (“the first egg-themed pop-up space offering a multi-sensory experience”), each competing to provide a more Instagrammable backdrop than the next.
But it seems the Museum’s founder, a 28-year-old named Maryellis Bunn, hopes to change that. In a recent interview, Bunn said her next project, which will also be an experiential museum concept, will require visitors to go phone-free. “Our mission is to bring imagination and connection to the world. Our mission is not for people to take great photographs,” she told Bloomberg News. It’s a noble goal in this hyper-connected, social media–addicted world — but the rise of highly aestheticized “experiences” seem to exist solely for the benefit of social media. I struggled to think of what I’d do in a ball-pit full of miniature ice-cream cones or a pastel space festooned with dozens of hanging bananas if not taking photographs. Would I appreciate the experience more without my phone screen as an intermediary? Would I be able to simply … vibe?
In the name of journalism, I decided to do a beta-test and see what a phone-free day at Soho’s brand-new Museum of Ice Cream would be like. It got off to a rocky start — when I tried to give up my phone, the coat-check guy told me I actually needed it to show my digital ticket. After the museum staff agreed to make an exception and let me relinquish my device, he asked me to take a photo of my coat-check ticket so I wouldn’t lose it.
“But I just gave you my phone,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, at a loss, as if I had just asked to coat-check my left arm.
In the first room, a vaulted bubble-gum pink antechamber decorated with signs saying things like “My Ice-Cream Name Is Kim Carbdashian” and “My Ice-Cream Name Is BaChoc Obama,” I was exhorted by museum staff to adopt an ice-cream name of my own.
“Hi, I’m Banana Vanillman,” I said to the woman next to me, feeling slightly embarrassed.
“This is Vanillabelle,” said the woman, gesturing to her 6-year-old daughter Annabelle. I asked the woman for her ice-cream name and she looked at me with disdain. “I don’t have an ice-cream name. My ice-cream name is ‘mommy is taking photos of her child.’”
It’s true that the Museum of Ice Cream is designed to be incredibly interactive. Enthusiastic staff in pink uniforms encouraged me and the eight people I had entered with to partake in team-building exercises, and we often we weren’t allowed to proceed to the next room without engaging in some debasing task, like yelling “scoop scoop!” or showing off our favorite dance moves. Entering a honey-themed room with mechanical bees hanging from the ceiling, an employee wearing a cape and crown chastised me for not engaging.
“No buzzing?” she asked, blocking the door, hands on her hips.
“Buzz,” I said sheepishly, and was allowed to move on.
We had also all been provided with Bingo Cards encouraging us to interact with the people around us. But try as I might, my peers didn’t seem all that interested in chatting with me. I asked an Australian woman (ice-cream name: Jessie’s Dream), who first heard about the museum from the Kardashians’ Instagram accounts, to complete one of the tasks with me by engaging in a compliment battle. “I like your hair,” I said.
“I like your accent,” she replied. What’s wrong with my hair? I wondered, relieved to have something to obsess over for the next few rooms.
For the next hour, we traversed through various spaces, lining up for tiny ping-pong ball–sized scoops of ice-cream and waiting patiently as the people in front of us stopped for photos in the different exhibits, like a bubble-gum colored subway car advertising stops like “Skybecka” and “Starlem.” As two girls next to me took turns posing on the subway pole, I sat on the cold pink seat and looked out the “windows,” where a flashing light show simulated traveling through outer space. I tried to imagine that I actually was orbiting our cosmos — that Bill DeBlasio had not only fixed the MTA but extended it into space — but looking at the lights started to make feel nauseous. I suppose that is how real astronauts sometimes feel.
Then I walked silently through a hanging forest of bananas, holding my arms out to feel the sensation of the forest around me. I was hoping it might feel like a full-body-massage, but it mostly just felt like I was getting tangled in string and occasionally pummeled by plastic. Still, I tried to remain present. I thought about how my cat might like it in there. I thought, also, about how bananas might be going extinct. I wondered how my children, for whom bananas existed only in myth, would look back on this interactive experience.
On the way out, I asked some people if they would come here without their phones. “Probably not, unless they had cameras embedded in the walls taking photos of you so you could still have them,” said 16-year-old Mango Maddy, who was there with her mom Coco Crisp.
“No way,” said 13-year-old Addie Split, who was there with a group of friends. Her chaperone chimed in. “Did anyone come without their phone? Why would you pay? What’s the point?”
The experience ended with us ejecting ourselves down a slide that looked like a fallopian tube, and proceeding to the final room: the famously Instagrammable trench full of sprinkles. As people lined up to pose on the diving board, I felt purposeless and exposed, like I had shown up a swim class without my bathing suit. Again, I tried to be present. I thought back to the mindfulness meditation workshop I once did, where we had to close our eyes and chew an unknown food for thirty seconds, concentrating on texture and flavor, and moved in the corner of the giant sprinkle pool marked Adults Only. Once there, I closed my eyes, kneading the Cheeto-shaped pieces of rubber through my fingers, trying to enjoy the sensation.
I mindfully focusing on the present — childrens’ laughter, the bumpy feel of the “sprinkles” against my socks — when something hit me in the head. I looked up. A boy was laughing at me; he had thrown a sprinkle at my head. For the first time that morning, I felt relief that this moment was lost to history; that nobody, save him and I, had been around to see it. I climbed out of the pool, dusted myself off, and headed to retrieve my phone.