Lights, Cameras, Action: The Rise of the Instagram-Friendly Museum
From ice cream to candy stilettos to rooms full of golden shoes, the exhibits at Instagram-friendly museums are designed first and foremost to be shared on social media.
With 20 “experiences,” ranging from a zero-gravity ball pit, where patrons can stroll through a playground of floating white balloons, to a Future Food Studio, where guests can try any food or flavor in “edible cloud form,” it’s most noteworthy attraction is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s frequently hashtagged “Infinity Room”—a trippy, many-mirrored room with reflective steel balls suspended from the ceiling and arranged around the floor.
According to the release, the wndr museum can be best described as a “new genre of ‘museum culture.’”
We might call this “new genre” the Instagram museum. Operating under the guise of installation art, its exhibits are seemingly designed to attract the kind of visitor whose main purpose for visiting is to share the photographic evidence of their visit on social media.
The insta-museum arrives amidst an existential crisis for museums of old, which have, in recent years, tried everything from mini-golf to Snapchat in a bid to attract wider audiences.
Cloaked in the parlance of the technocracy—an internet-friendly, hashtag-able name; the blink-and-you-miss-it nature of “pop-up”—the Instagram museum is, like Instagram itself, less edifying than diverting. It promises an experience you can share online, which is increasingly the only experience that matters.
We can identify the germs of the genre in several movements and artists over the past century. Sculpture parks, from Storm King Art Center in New York to the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, are not dissimilar from the Instagram museum; nor is the work of pop artist Claes Oldenburg, whose playfully hyperbolic sculptures of everyday objects, from ice cream cones to shuttlecocks, haunt many a-public square.
'Happenings' of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as the work of performance artists such as Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono, implicate the audience in their art-making, albeit in a much edgier way than a pop-up designed to elicit Instagrams.
Contemporary analogues, with varying degrees of likeness, may include: Burning Man (the quintessential festival-meets-happening), Sleep No More, the Rain Room, and Alejandro Iñárritu’s immersive VR installation, “Carne y Arena.”
It would be remiss not to mention The Factory here, too, if only because the mind collapses on itself trying to consider what Warhol would’ve made of these places. (Wondering what Warhol would have created in the age of Instagram is as devastating as wondering what David Foster Wallace would’ve written in the age of Trump; you kind of suspect he’d have the best take.)
The ur-Instagram museum, though, is probably the Museum of Ice Cream, which opened in New York in 2016, and has since opened locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami.
The “museum,” as it’s so cheekily designated, is famous for its vivid dessert-themed installations, like a psychedelic rainbow room and Pop Rocks cave. Its biggest draw is a veritable sprinkle pool, which sits magnificently under a diving board like the materialization of an unremembered childhood dream.
There are, of course, activities beyond photo-taking, like a room full of refrigerator magnets with which to compose ice cream-related poetry, and delectable treats for visitors to try.
But the not-so-unstated goal of the brand—and it is, most definitely, a brand, now with its own ice cream—is to goad patrons into Instagramming the experience: its account currently has 402,000 followers, and a quick search of its various hashtags reveals it's been used in over 200,000 posts. Similar to Refinery29’s 29Rooms, the MOIC is the perfect collision of art, commerce and Instagram; spon-con, IRL.
Perhaps the purest representation of the form, however, is Happy Place (142k followers). Originating in Los Angeles last November, the pop-up comes from the live entertainment producer, Jared Paul, who described it to me as “a themed immersive experience designed to help you escape for a very short time and immerse yourself in happiness.”
I had the chance to visit its latest 20,000-square-foot iteration, which was in Chicago until August 6th. Behind smiling emoji-yellow doors, the experience, like its competitors, features a series of interactive, Instagram-ready installations: a pair of seven-foot candy stilettos; the world’s largest confetti dome; a dark room full of 40,000 golden flowers. The space is equipped with over 400 lights, and the rooms, with their size, scale and repetition, are designed expressly with Instagram in mind.
Despite my initial cynicism, it was hard not to be happy in Happy Place, as my photographer snapped photos of me posing in a rubber ducky bathtub, making confetti snow angels, and generally looking silly. I kind of loved it.
Rather than inhibiting you from “living in the moment,” as may be the case when you’re trying to Instagram the Cliffs of Moher, the Eiffel Tower or other photogenic landmarks, the act of Instagramming inside Happy Place was inextricable from the act of enjoying being inside Happy Place. Without taking photos, you might not know what to do there.
The same might be said of any number of Happy Place-like installations. Happy-Go-Lucky (12.5k followers), which just closed in New York, has a sunflower ocean and “diamond room.” Brooklyn’s Dream Machine (53.8k followers) boasts a room full of sparkly bubbles and a cotton candy laundromat.
The Color Factory (141k followers) lets you scan a card for ready-made Instagram boomerangs while you lie on a spinning pie chart.
The wndr museum (11.7k followers), whose preview party I attended earlier this month, offers crunchy ice cream dipped in a cauldron of liquid nitrogen and various sets, laid out as if on a sound stage, with vaguely scientific premises and docents in periwinkle lab coats, admirably explaining complex concepts to people who by and large seemed more interested in snapping photos than, say, the mechanics of neutrino particle accelerators.
When I finally gained entry to the Infinity Room—there was a line—the vision of my myriad selves, standing out against the black carpet and lightweight silver orbs, iPhones endlessly brandished, were enchanting but underwhelming; if the organizing principle of a museum is more or less “This would look cool on Instagram,” it stands to reason that the significance of each piece is more or less, “This would look cool on Instagram.”
And yet, as art perpetually contorts itself to fit the times, so too must the experience of art. It’s hard to imagine the next generation of smartphone-addled teens lingering in the Rothko room at Tate Modern, luxuriating in the strange emotions his paintings so mysteriously evoke.
The common thread of the Instagram museum is that we become an integral part of the works inside (and, likewise, advertisements for them). We don’t absorb them so much as they absorb us; we don’t internalize as much as externalize them, curating and exhibiting them to our followers.
It’s true that artists in the past have produced pieces that may be better suited to being proliferated in photographs than anything else, with or without people in them.
James Turrell’s still-in-progress “Roden Crater” is maybe best viewed from satellite photographs, as is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” easily the most iconic work of land art ever created.
But these works claim their power in part because they’re in constant dialogue with the physical world—“Spiral Jetty,” for example, disappeared for a time two years after its arrival, due to rising water levels.
The Instagram museum, by contrast, claims its power in the virtual world; as “pop-ups,” they by definition forgo a relationship with a particular environment. They are totally fungible, and therefore totally impervious to the vicissitudes of time.
They are everywhere, they are nowhere. They are the natural evolution of art in the digital age—of a society who experiences a thing as much through the thing itself as the Instagram of the thing. And like the posts memorializing them, they seem predestined to be replicated and shared, glanced at but not always digested, before being cast aside to make way for whatever comes next.