The bustling industry of immersive, Instagram-friendly experiences has put a new spin on the word museum.
When the Museum of Illusions opened in Greenwich Village last fall, it drew lines down the block to get in. Visitors flocked to photogenic exhibits that make it look like you have lost your head or can walk on walls. Following in the footsteps of other viral-experience purveyors like the Museum of Ice Cream, Museum of Pizza, and Color Factory, the Museum of Illusions’ takeover of a prominent corner building seemed to assert that the age of the pop museum—or “museum”—is only beginning.
The Museum of Illusions’ New York outpost was the second location to open in a burgeoning international franchise. MOI lists 18 current locations around the globe, with another 14 in the works, including in Chicago, Miami, Dallas, and Las Vegas. Unlike many of its predecessors in the world of Instagram-bait exhibitions, the Museum of Illusions isn’t a temporary pop-up—its locations are intended as long-term fixtures. The stately downtown NYC location, a landmarked neo-classical former bank, underlines that ambition.
These immersive experiences are branded as exhibits, but that might be where the link to traditional museums ends. The companies are, after all, for-profit businesses that sell experiences that have been expressly created for social media postability. That’s quite a contrast from the conventional idea of a museum as an educational institution that’s driven by the public good. Traditionally speaking, museums have mission statements, standards, accountability, and other responsibilities (including generating enough income to survive).
Their viral brethren are here to sell a good time for a profit, though providing education can be a welcome side benefit. Renne Gjoni, the CEO of MOI's New York City outpost, says he is gratified that educators value the exhibits so much that they keep bringing school groups back.
Why, then, has it become trendy to make a funhouse for grownups and brand it with the M-word? For one thing, pastimes among the well-off have evolved and converged. For example, the “experiential retail and entertainment” complex Area15, set to open in Las Vegas next year, advertises, “It’s retail, it’s entertainment, it’s art—redefined.” (See also the popular immersive experiences by Meow Wolf and TeamLab.) Then there’s the global popularity of museums as travel destinations, and their primacy in online searches. And there’s also the possibility that businesspeople aren’t too cautious with the word museum, as Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn told The Atlantic last year: “It’s not so damn serious. I like ice cream, so do you, that’s enough,” Bunn said.
As the Museum of Ice Cream’s business grows beyond pop-up installations, though, the company’s founders have signaled a shift in thinking about its use of museum. Speaking to Forbes in August about the company’s future—including opening permanent locations in New York and San Francisco this year—Bunn unveiled a new word: experium, a combination of experience and museum. She told Forbes:
For the last three years, we’ve been having conversations about what we create. Museum is not the right word and experience is not the right word, because an experience can be having a cup of tea, writing a letter or walking outside. So we need to properly define this word for ourselves and for the world.
There certainly has been some value in adopting the museum as a brand. Research shows that museums generally are among the most trusted institutions in America, earning higher marks among the public than local news, government agencies, and academic researchers, according to the American Alliance of Museums.
“The fact that many successful immersive experiences are identifying themselves as museums demonstrates they feel there is economic value in museums and in associating their work with more traditional organizations,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. “Traditional museums, in turn, can watch how these for-profit experiments operate and create new revenue sources.”
The looming question, then, is if appropriating the word museum threatens to diminish that hard-earned trust.
That’s the crux of the matter for Peter Kim, executive director of the nonprofit MOFAD, the Museum of Food and Drink. “I have no quarrel with the approach and goals of a place like the Museum of Ice Cream, or the Museum of Pizza, or the Museum of Illusions to create a space for fun, and a space for play,” Kim tells CityLab. “My only issue arises, and it’s a very serious one, when they use the word museum to describe what they’re doing. That’s where the entire problem lies.”
Kim has been working since 2011 toward the eventual establishment of a permanent museum with the professional level of quality and practice to eventually be accredited by AAM. Presently, the temporary “MOFAD Lab” is open in Brooklyn and exhibiting “Chow: Making the Chinese-American Restaurant,” whose webpage cites 10 scholars and experts who advised the exhibition.
The word museum invokes expectations, and if those are not met, “then you warp and change the meaning of the word,” Kim says. “It means education, it means community building, it means service, it means mission. And these places are pretty much devoid of that.”
“Space for fun is a laudable effort in many ways,” Kim says. “But the real hard stuff comes when you want to connect people in new ways, or teach new things.” In the moments when a museum isn’t all sparkles and photo ops, he says: “I worry that there will be a sense of disappointment from people who are no longer used to experiencing things in this way.”
Of course, it’s an eternal challenge to know what to expect of the public, or how much credit to give. You want to believe that people understand the University of the Streets does not grant MBAs, the Brandy Library is not about lending, and you can’t reach the Fountain Pen Hospital by calling 911.
Laura Lott, president and CEO of AAM, says she trusts that people can understand the difference between different types of places that call themselves museums. “Generally the public can distinguish what kind of experience they plan to have,” Lott told CityLab. “I don’t worry about people confusing the Met and the ice cream museum.”
Still, there’s something refreshing about the straightforward billing of the Selfie Fantasy in Ocean City, Maryland: “Ocean City's first immersive selfie inspired Instagram worthy experience. Enjoy many different atmospheres—all while snapping awesome selfies.” There is also the House of Selfies in Las Vegas, and even the meta Museum of Selfies in Los Angeles, which have photo settings reminiscent of the food- and illusion-based places, and make it clear what the real subject of the experience is. It’s not ice cream or illusions or bright colors—it’s you, the visitor.
That concept might also offer up the strongest connection between the selfie factories and the M-word. Museum comes from a Greek term meaning “shrine to the muses.” The lofty institutions that use the term today are the spiritual descendants of 16th-century “cabinets of curiosities” and “wonder rooms,” in which private collectors gathered the objects that captured their attention. Maybe it’s not so big of a reach, then, to suggest that people might enter the cabinet of curiosities themselves, and find the muse right there in their camera lenses.