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Fun in the sprinkle pool at Museum of Ice Cream.
Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Museum of Ice Cream

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Are we having fun yet?

The Museum of Ice Cream is popular, colorful, and sugary, but are visitors playing—or playing themselves?

The sprinkles got to me first: After Boomerangs on banana swings, the second-most-popular ’gram from the Museum of Ice Cream seemed to be kid-buried-in-the-sprinkle-pit. When the museum premiered in New York in 2016, all the sprinkle pictures confused me, because who would want to eat something in which people had wallowed? The sprinkles aren’t edible, of course—they are plastic. (Duh.)

A recent profile of co-founder and creative director Maryellis Bunn helped me see what should have been obvious all along: The Museum of Ice Cream is not a museum, but a playground, albeit one with a seriously twisted idea of fun. The sprinkle pool is not Willy Wonka’s world of candy, but a giant sandbox.

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All the pretty colors led me to dismiss it as just another millennial photo op, falling for what pioneering play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith called the “triviality barrier.” Children’s play in particular—and play, irrationality, and aesthetics in general—are so out of step with our work-oriented civilization that, he wrote in 1970, they have been seen as beneath the dignity of study. I was guilty of making the same mistake, but in fact, a little play theory helps us see the MOIC and its ilk, like Color Factory, for what they really are: working for the weekend.

Sandboxes are a great example of triviality, because what could be less important than sand? And yet, sand is a better play material than most. The first American playgrounds, established in Boston in the 1880s, were little more than piles of sand in an empty lot, intended to give urban children something to do. Sand could be piled, could be molded, could be dug out and slid down. It was the smallest particle that could be considered a “loose part,” a term invented by another play theorist, Simon Nicholson, also in the 1970s. Nicholson wrote:

Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use gifted few’s inventions and art, are read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few.

Visitors experience the Museum of Ice Cream.
Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Museum of Ice Cream

His solution was to give children not complete playgrounds, but the parts out of which to make them. Not the sterile environments dreamed up by designers in honor of children, but the empty canvas on which the designers themselves had run wild. Nicholson put into words what earlier advocates of the junk playground had created in deed, and the term “loose parts” has proved durable, covering everything from sand to 2-by-4s, Imagination Playground blocks to kits of precut wood parts.

But at the Museum of Ice Cream, what can you do with those sprinkles? Very little. They slide away from each other, refusing to be mounded or molded. There are no buckets or shovels, only your hands. Your time in the pit is limited, a digital click-click, let’s let the next kid have a turn. The “About” tab on the museum’s website delivers this statement, rendered in an array of fun fonts:

Remember those Crazy Ideas you dreamed up as a kid? The Museum of Ice Cream is the place where ideas are transformed into real life experiences [sic] a place where flavors are mysteries, toppings are toys and sprinkles make the world a better place.

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Who gets to transform those ideas, and what you get to do with those toy toppings is left vague, when for play those are the crucial questions.

There is also the price. Roger Caillois, another 1960s theorist, says play has to be free. If it is obligatory (as it is when you have purchased a ticket for a certain day and date, months in advance), “it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as a diversion.” It must also, he writes, be uncertain, “the course of which cannot be determined, not the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative.” In the museum’s first New York location, visitors could scoop ice cream into the “world’s largest sundae,” but only vanilla, in one room, and the ice cream was fake so it would not melt. Lastly, it must be unproductive, “creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind.”

I imagine his ideal play is the sandlot, where two hours of vigorous pretend skirmishing disappear with a call to dinner, to be taken up the next day as if nothing had happened. Those two hours, for children, are a time out of mind, out of the ordinary, absorbed in a world of their own making—literally or imaginatively. It is not home, it is not school, it is theirs.

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The museum now costs $38 per person (children under age 3 are free) for what is designed as a 45-minute experience. Even with today’s high museum ticket prices, that’s a lot of money, enough that visitors want to be sure they are getting their money’s worth—which seems mostly to translate into obsessive documentation. If I had spent $152 for my family of four, I would want to make damn sure I got a photo for my holiday card, not to mention my Instagram.

And the experience is engineered to do just that, moving the visitor along on a conveyor belt of experience. The Museum of Ice Cream is tethered to the world by a thousand social-media posts. The imperative to share the experience with those outside, rather than in the immediate environment, make it more work than play. The weekend becomes a series of timed experiences meant to achieve the best combination of attractive photo and drool-worthy geotag.

This museum is the offspring of museum experiences like The Rain Room or Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored Infinity Rooms, which now come with their own dedicated prices, lines, and time limits. Though both are shown in the context of an art museum, the Rain Room is not, in fact, art. It isn’t something to sit with, or even to think about, but a hard-won moment of technological wonder – See, I’m not getting wet! Without photographic proof, it was hard to justify all the time spent waiting in line for that moment.

Museum of Ice Cream visitors pose for a photo.
Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Museum of Ice Cream

Much of social media now operates this way, a single photo composition standing as a badge of access, checkbox checked, coolness leveled up. I find this particularly disquieting as a parent. I (mostly) keep my kids off social media, and my 10-year-old doesn’t even like having his picture taken, ducking behind his bangs when he sees me raise my phone. If I spent $152 to have them pose against a series of backdrops, all hell would break loose. What is there for them? Spitting out plastic sprinkles before the bribe of multiple sugary treats.

Kusama’s Obliteration Room, the one with the stickers, is different. There, you can make your mark, and what you’re actually seeing changes over time. The artist originally designed it for children, as a PG-rated version of her participatory “body festivals” of the 1960s. The stickers act like grains of sand, loose parts that grow and change. Meanwhile, the Museum of Ice Cream is reset each day, reset in each city, to conform to the design guidelines of Crazy Ideas. Employees spend their time sweeping the sprinkles back into the pool.

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The most interesting thing about the MOIC from a design perspective is its relentless compression of experience. To get a good photo for social media, architecture needs to be smushed into a shallow backdrop so that you, the subject, are not too far away from the interesting object. Horizontal items of interest have to fit into a frame with your shoes. Vertical items have to be as much like wallpaper as possible; photorealistic wallpaper is almost better than 3D objects.

This emphasis on the surface has begun to make its way from this world of entertainment back into the world of play. Look at renderings of the “improvements” Seattle wants to make to Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva’s Freeway Park, adding colorful murals and a climbing wall to a highway-cap landscape that was supposed to remind users of canyons and nature with simple swaths of green and gray.

At Instagram’s New York headquarters, this is made manifest in a miniature office set that visitors often pose in, marking their pleasure in visiting Instagram’s real office by having their picture taken in a more photogenic version of same. Many of MOIC’s rooms are made on this principle, from the plastic bananas hung on the wall in a repeat grid to the wallpaper-like whipped-cream cans. If you don’t dive into the sprinkle pool because #germs, you can at least stand at the edge and shoot down past your toes. (Pastel or metallic shoes make the snap even cuter.)

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The most amazing design playgrounds I’ve visited don’t look good in ground-level photos. To understand them you have to shoot them from a plane, or drone, or even a very high ladder hovering over Isamu Noguchi’s pyramidal mounds or Aldo Van Eyck’s checkerboards of sandpit and concrete mushrooms. They are experienced by the child as a landscape of three-dimensional objects rather than as a fixed composition for admiration. Noguchi understood the communication problem inherent in his jump to urban scale, and made abstract plaster models and bronze casts of many of his designs for play. These were often displayed vertically on gallery walls, which made them easier to digest.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with the Museum of Ice Cream and its colorful imitators. Compressing play into a timed, ticketed, physically circumscribed experience makes it very much not play. It makes leisure into a ladder to be climbed, just like work, with likes standing in for raises. It makes stepping outside ordinary life impossible, when social media acts as a tether. At the end of her New York Magazine profile, Maryellis Bunn invokes the grand master of commodified play, Walt Disney: “I could take all of those different installations that we just went through, and I could build them out into city blocks. It would be my Heaven. Could you imagine?”

It is true that Disneyland was built on artifice: Those charming Main Street storefronts are actually a single long building, those upper stories are fake, and his designers used forced perspective to make the buildings look taller.

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Yet Disneyland, in Walt Disney’s original vision, was to be an inspiration for future cities and future transportation as well. He understood his theme park not as an end in itself, but as a working model. He remained interested in what was below the surface. The first version of EPCOT in Florida, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, had a downtown in a dome connected to car-free neighborhoods by high-speed rail. In his future city there might have been room for other people to move things around, to mess things up, to play, unleashing their own creativity, rather than simply mirroring that of the creator.

Disney billed his theme park as a place “where parents and children could have fun together,” akin to Bunn’s stated desire for “social squared,” an updated version of William H. Whyte’s theory of triangulation. Whyte thought a third element—a fountain, a performance, a food cart—brought people together in public space. Bunn’s museums could work that way, but it is hard to imagine unfettered stranger interaction without the element of surprise. Haven’t we already seen, and processed, all the wonder on Instagram?

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