A recent discussion thread on Museum Junction debated whether the Museum of Ice Cream really counts as a museum. I’m interested in why they choose to self-identify as a museum, and what value that has contributed to their brand. MoIC’s $38 tickets resell on the secondary market for up to $125; it has raised enough capital to open outposts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami; and investors recently valued the company at $200M. All this whetted my appetite to learn more, so I was delighted to come across an episode of the Museum Confidential podcast from last October in which host Jeff Martin interviews Madison Utendahl, who at that time was the Museum of Ice Cream’s head of content and social. Jeff has kindly allowed me to share some interesting excerpts from their conversation in this post.
–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums
(Content courtesy of Philbrook Museum of Art and Public Radio Tulsa. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can access the original podcast recording here.)
What is a museum? More importantly, who gets to decide? In the summer of 2016, The Museum of Ice Cream opened in New York City as a temporary experience dedicated to the concept and culture of ice cream. The idea for such a museum was met almost immediately with both widespread interest and skepticism. By late 2017, more than five-hundred thousand guests had experienced the original Manhattan-based iteration. Subsequent popups happened in LA, Miami, and San Francisco, where the museum now has its first permanent space. We recently sat down with Madison Utendahl, the Museum of Ice Cream’s head of content and social. She’s been there since the beginning and in many ways is still just getting started.
Jeff Martin: I’d like to start with just the basic idea of what the Museum of Ice Cream is. I’ve heard it described as a brand experience, but even that is a little bit esoteric.
Madison Utendahl: The way that I describe it is that Museum of Ice Cream is an experiential installation dedicated to ice cream. But the whole premise and foundation of the Museum of Ice Cream is as an experience that has been created to foster connection and imagination using ice cream as a vehicle to bring people together.
JM: The idea was born when? At what time? It’s kind of blown up fairly quickly, but where was the seed for the whole thing planted?
MU: Maryellis Bunn is the founder of Museum of Ice Cream. This has been a lifelong childhood dream of hers. She always wanted to create experiences that would bring people together, and she noticed throughout her childhood the significance that ice cream played in her life in bringing her family and friends together, whether it was after a dinner or after playing a sports game, or for a holiday. As a result, she has always wanted to create a large-scale experience where ice cream was at its core. The idea came to life about two and a half years ago when she decided to quit her job and put all of her passions into this project.
JM: You run social and content. Is that basically everything going out externally from the museum?
MU: Yes, it is everything externally facing, whether that’s a newsletter, a post on Instagram, or a video you can Facebook. All that comes out of my team.
JM: The vast majority of people experiencing the Museum of Ice Cream are experiencing it through social channels, because you have such a big reach now. It’s grown so quickly; social media is probably your number one avenue to reach not just your core audience, but new people as well. How do you decide what people know already versus how to constantly reintroduce the concept? You’ve only been around for a short time period, so I’m sure people who come every day to a social platform or even to the physical space need to have a little bit of backstory.
MU: All of our posts and all of our content that we do ties back to three pillars or three tent poles I like to have within every single piece of content: Is it uplifting the communities—our external audience? Is it telling a story or connecting our audience to our team? Or is it telling a story, connecting our audience to our experience? I find that those three things are entryways into understanding who we are and what we stand for.
I think there is a false narrative that gets perpetuated that the museum is an Instagrammable pop-up, but the reality is that we’re now a permanent institution, and the premise of our experience is not as an opportunity for photos, but to bring people together. Each post and each story is connected to that goal.
JM: Let’s talk about that for a moment. How do you take something that could be very easily seen as kind of a surface experience and give it deeper meaning? When you’re in the museum world, people love to use the term outcomes. What, beyond the smile, or the wow factor of the initial visual experience, are the takeaways or outcomes from the museum?
MU: One thing I will say is really unique and different about the Museum of Ice Cream compared to a traditional museum is that every single person who works in Museum of Ice Cream is coached and trained to interact with their audience in a meaningful way. For example, when you go to the Museum of Ice Cream, the only way you are able to get from one room to the next is by interacting with a guide in the room. The guide is instructed to speak to the audience, to educate the audience, to provide thought-provoking questions that encourage people to really think about how they view imagination, whether or not they’re currently being creative in their own lives, or they’re following their own passions. In traditional museums, unless you sign up for a tour or take an audio guide, most of the time you don’t [get this kind of attention from staff]. The security [staff are] not there to foster the experience and your relationship with the artwork that you’re viewing.
In the Museum of Ice Cream, it’s actually the polar opposite. The experience is enhanced through the people that exist within those installations, and it ties to our messaging of using ice cream as the vehicle that is connecting people together. So you walk into the installation, you eat the ice cream, you experience that comfort and delight, and then you’re provoked to ask a question that taps into subject matter that we have a tendency not to think about. We don’t often give ourselves the opportunity to ask ourselves, “When is the last time I really explored my imagination? When did I think about whether or not I’m pursuing my passion? Am I being creative in any other parts of my life?” That’s really what makes us unique. That’s where the depth and substance really comes out of the experience versus a lot of these Instagram pop ups that are simply designed for photos.
JM: When the choice was made to call it the Museum of Ice Cream—as opposed to the House of Ice Cream, or the Palace of Ice Cream—the word museum brings with it a lot of weight. People [can] get very defensive about that word. When you think about traditional art museums or historic museums, the argument can be made that maybe you guys were poking fun at the concept. What has been the general reaction from peers in the museum world?
MU: I think it’s been mixed. By no means were we poking fun at the term museum. I studied art history in school and Manish Vora, one of the co-founders of the museum, was in the art world for a very long time. We [on staff] are avid museum-goers and have studied art history as a craft and education. The term museum was used as a means to challenge and disrupt [perceptions of] museums, and keep the concept more open-ended and more accessible.
In our opinion, a lot of the time museums can feel very isolating for people. Not everyone can walk into a museum and have an experience that feels educational or uplifting. That response might depend on previous knowledge or the access that they’ve had to be able to understand or comprehend art. Sometimes the art world can feel a little daunting to people. What we really want to do is just to provide an additional opportunity for people to challenge this conception of what a museum is, in a way that makes it feel more accessible. We hope that you go to the Museum of Ice Cream, and then go to the Whitney, or then go to the New Museum, or SFMOMA. We’re designed as a complement [to traditional museums], if anything, not as anything antagonistic or offensive.
JM: So when you began, you had a temporary space in New York City, and recently you have opened a permanent space in San Francisco. Let’s talk about scaling this thing up, because the speed and pace of your growth is pretty breathtaking. You have this permanent space in San Francisco, [and your offices are based] in New York. Should we expect more permanent spaces or will there always be this one space? Will you continue doing things throughout the country, or now will you always expect people to come to San Francisco? What kind of footprint do you want nationwide?
MU: We definitely are looking into expanding and having more permanent locations throughout the country. The experiential economy has boomed globally, and people are dedicated to spending their money on experiences and on doing things with the people they love, or strangers, that are just different. Statistically we see, especially amongst millennials, that people are spending more money on trips than they are on clothing. I hope that we can boost this experiential economy, and provide other museums, institutions, and installations with opportunities to keep getting people through their doors.
JM: The museum itself, you have a truck that travels around like a food truck, or ice cream truck, right? And there is the line of ice creams that are sold through Target, and there is the line of Sephora makeup products. Talk about the strategy behind these commercial pursuits. Is that all part of the business strategy, more of a marketing strategy, or is it a little bit both?
MU: We look at these products as tools for expression, the same way that we view ice cream as a tool. You can either choose to look at it as just a treat, or you can choose to look at it as the nucleus to bring people together in many situations. When we look at the kid’s collection that we had at Target or the Sephora line, they’re just further tools that people can use to express themselves to tap into their imagination and creativity, and with ice cream at its core.
Ice cream is incredibly accessible, a universal language that people speak globally. They understand ice cream and they can comprehend it. We’re basically elevating that language and providing opportunities for people across the country feel the experience and magic of our brand. Because we’re so tied to physical location, if we don’t have products out in the world, then we really are limiting ourselves. Everyone should be able to have a piece of Museum of Ice Cream. That’s part of who we are, and what we stand for. So, that’s really the intention behind tapping into all of these products.
[Elizabeth: One of my favorite parts of the Museum Confidential podcast are the “ads.” At this point in the interview, Jeff pauses to give the “sponsor” credit for this episode:]
JM: Today’s episode of Museum Confidential is sponsored by carpet. Stoic, unflappable, long-suffering, industrial…just a few of the ways to describe the unsung, under-your-feet, foundational material of most museums. In a world full of easy-to-clean tile, wall-to-wall linoleum, and stained concrete, many museums remain committed to the warm comfort of carpet. Stains be damned; carpet confronts adversity and says, “Bring it on!” Red wine reception with donors? No problem. Field trip of third graders on a rainy day? Big whoop. And don’t be thrown off by that nervous service dog. You got this! We at Museum Confidential wish to endorse carpet with every fiber of our being.
[Back to the interview]
JM: Can you talk about what you’re going to be doing five years from now? At some point, The Museum of Ice Cream won’t be the hot new thing; there will be something else. So how do you maintain relevance beyond the initial publicity?
MU: I think that’s a process of evolving and adapting, and making sure that we always have a finger on the pulse of culture. The reality is if we’re always trying to be the hottest new thing, in my opinion, that doesn’t allow for permanence. We’re past the point of just wanting to make an impression…we want to make an impact. Our [next] shift is to creating and establishing ourselves as a thought leader, an entity that is thought-provoking and challenging, and pushing the boundaries of what it means to experience the world. And we’re using ice cream as the crux, the nucleus of that.
That being said, for the next five years we’re looking into cementing ourselves in culture by creating experiences that really do transform people’s relationship with their own imagination. For me, as head of content, that’s looking at, what does the Museum of Ice Cream look like in the digital video space? What does the Museum of Ice Cream show look like? What do the Museum of Ice Cream characters look like? [We need to] understand and study the work of brilliant institutions like Disney, and how they have evolved through the years. Their whole experience started with a mouse, and started with one theme park, and look what they’ve been able to develop. We’re in that same space
JM: What about the reaction or collaboration opportunities with, I guess what I would call the ice cream industrial complex, like the actual ice cream companies? People like Häagen-Dazs, or whoever. Have you guys had an opportunity to interface with any of those big companies?
MU: Yeah, we have, but we’re really, really, really proud to be privately owned, and to be run by a team of twelve. We are a female-led and female-dominant company, and we are going to ride that wave for as long as we can. It’s been an incredible journey to build something like this with just an incredibly strong and powerful educated group of women. So while we have had the opportunity to team up with some of these big ice cream conglomerates that have the ownership of the market, we’re going to stay private for now, and small as long as we can.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Great share! Just like you, I’m also intrigued to understand why Pop-up museums choose to self-identify as museums and not as installation exhibitions. It is amazing how you have captured the essence of the conversation of the host Jeff Martin interviewing Madison Utendahl, former social editor at Museum of Ice Cream in the show Museum Confidential and made it the pivot of your article. I have watched the podcast too. While Jeff seemed to brush it off as a brand experience, Madison defended herself quite well describing the place as an experimental installation. However, just like she stated, it is an installation exhibition. Just because Pop-up museums are trending on social media and people are loving the experience with the technological installations doesn’t mean it falls under the category of a museum. These Instagram pop-ups are simply designed for photo esthetics and selfies while the true meaning of a museum is to discover cultural artifacts, broaden our knowledge on civilisation and store our cultural heritage. I really can’t seem to find a connection between cultural interest and taking photos. What do you think of my views? I would love to have your personal thoughts on this conversation. Looking forward to your reply.
Nice thoughts. I agree with you. These places are filled with new technology and there’s nothing related to our cultural aspect. However I feel guilty because I actually love going to these places rather than museums.
Same! I also love checking out these installation places. Have you been to TeamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum in Japan? The exhibition there is just phenomenal. But what knowledge are we grasping? We are just relaxing, being amazed by the technology, enjoying the experience and promoting the place. I get the point that these places are earning from us but what about us? At least historical museums are places with win-win situation where both parties are benefiting from each other.
I think there’s a fine line between exhibition and installation though. An installation art is an artistic genre of three dimentional works while an exhibition is a public display of works art in the museums. Probably that’s why Madison kept insisting on the word experimental installation. But why these places are called Museums seems really confusing as you have stated.
What balderdash. The use of the word museum is simply a marketing trick to get attention and make money. All the blather about bringing people together and being a creative space and etc. is nice but lots of places do that, including actual museums. This business is first and foremost a business. It has absolutely no altruistic charitable nonprofit civic value It just wants to take advantage of a word that has value and resonance because of people who are devoted to real museums and day in and day out strive to secure and sustain meaningful missions for past, present and future generations. I love ice cream and museums. If this company wants to use the word museum as a sales gimmick, the word has been bastardized in worse ways.