The Story of How the Magical ‘Museum of Ice Cream’ Came to Life

published Apr 7, 2018
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Anyone who’s scrolled through Instagram in the past year or so might have spotted someone knees-deep in a pool full of sprinkles. If you’ve thought “what on earth is this magical land where you can swim in millions of rainbow Jimmies?,” here’s the answer: the Museum of Ice Cream. It’s part-playground, part-“museum,” and 100% FOMO inducing.

Since launching in New York the summer of 2016 (and now open in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami), excitement and wonder for the artful installation has yet to die down. In fact, it’s still regularly sold out in some locations. To learn what all the hype was about, we visited the Museum of Ice Cream Miami, and left not only with a belly full of ice cream (yes, you get served sweet frozen treats at every turn—lactose intolerants, beware!), but also with a reawakening of a long-dormant sense of childlike wonder. It felt something like what the lucky golden-ticket wielding kids must have experienced at the Willy Wonka Factory (except without all the horrible things that happened to wean out the bad apples).

Room after eye-popping room, you experience an electric explosion of color, art, and pure joie de vivre from the installations and MoIC staff (a giant smile must be part of their uniform requirements because there isn’t a single serious face working in the building). It’s truly an experience to be had IRL.

After our visit, we caught up with Maryellis Bunn, the creator and designer of the Museum of Ice Cream, to hear more about the birth of what seems like one of Instagram’s most popular check-in locations, why she thinks it’s been such a hit, and, of course, her favorite ice cream flavor.

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Apartment Therapy: What gave you the idea to create this experience? What was your intention behind creating the Museum of Ice Cream?

Maryellis Bunn: I think of ice cream as so much more than ice cream. I think about it as an agent of change. It brings people together because we have this shared admiration and love for it. It ties you to memories and nostalgia; and it’s not just a thing here in America, it’s universal. At the Museum of Ice Cream, my goal is to let people be transformed and really give them the opportunity to be able to get into a mindset where they have that same imagination and creativity they had as a kid.

AT: Are the spaces/experiences inspired by your own childhood?

MB: All these ideas come from the worlds that I would make up in my backyard when I was six years old. They were so alive and vibrant in my mind. I would imagine myself flying from my house and landing in an ocean of sprinkles. It was a space where there were no qualms of what could be or what is. My goal is to spark that same imagination in everyone.

AT: The Museum of Ice Cream is currently in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and now Miami (through May). How does each city compare to the next?

MB: I spend a significant amount of time in each city before the design phase. Each location is a response to what’s going on at a micro level locally as well as what we’re seeing in this world in general. Since we launched 18 months ago, there’s been a constant throughout, which is that the world is quite dark. How do I build inclusive environments that serve as a respite from that? How do I create a tangible, visceral takeaway that visitors not only feel while in our spaces, but also take with them when they leave?

AT: It’s easy to forget about the world’s happenings when you’re sitting in a pool of sprinkles. Did that (now super Instagram famous) idea come directly from your own childhood imagination?

MB: Yeah. Like I mentioned earlier, as a kid I would “fly” from my swing set to the ocean, which in my mind was full of sprinkles instead of water. I feel like society is very plugged in and there’s so little magic. We accept everything as it is. I wanted to challenge that; what could this world look like? What could it be? In this case, it was an ocean (or a pool) of sprinkles that defies convention. There are hundreds of millions of sprinkles in there. That’s a huge, huge feat. It’s not the ocean but it’s at least a step.

AT: You sink into that sprinkle pool and you can’t help but smile and laugh. You can’t sit in there seriously. It definitely is magical.

MB: That’s the thing! It’s in that process of burying yourself in the sprinkles that so naturally allows you to eliminate any outside entities that could be burdensome. It’s freeing. You can’t help but laugh about it.

AT: Beyond the sprinkle pool waits a journey of electric and happy spaces. Tell me about how those come together.

MB: It’s a lot of looking at the spaces we have to work with and figuring out how to optimize them. What is the flow of the experience? In Miami, for instance, how do you get 2,000 people up and down a four-story building without having a major traffic jam both ways? It was an interesting feat.

AT: Most of the rooms at MoIC has an ice cream pairing to go with it. Did you design all the rooms with a specific ice cream in mind or did that come after?

MB: It’s a holistic approach when I’m thinking about an installation. Take the diner for instance. Diners are classic, so how do you make that relevant? My last name is Bunn, so we created the Bunn Shake. People in that room actually have to shake their buns for the milkshake; it’s so fun and silly. It’s definitely about thinking of the food and the taste and how the subconscious interprets the actual flavors and smells, but also how they are enhanced by the visuals of what you’re seeing and experiencing. I think it’s a crucial element.

AT: So many of the little experiences (like the Jungle Room’s banana swing!) had lines of people waiting to take their picture with it, likely for social. Would you say that Instagram was a motivation behind a lot of these photo op spaces in the Museum of Ice Cream?

MB: No. My intention is very clear. MoIC stands not only for Museum of Ice Cream but also for the Movement of Imagination and Creativity. While there is of course a social aspect to these photo ops, it’s about so much more. What I find so marvelous is that people come here to see a specific installation and their own creative process starts far earlier. They start planning out what they want to do and what they want their photo to look like before walking through the doors. I have girls, I have guys, I have couples that will go and plan out their outfits for this, where each and every room will be an outfit change. It’s like they think, “Oh, this is an installation. I want to be able to make it mine by doing X.” Their creative energy will start to occur far earlier than they actually see it.

I think of my work as not a finished product but as a tool for you and for our visitors and for the people that see it in real life and online to make it their own. Social is a tool for them to then express that. That’s the beauty of it. There is a bittersweet part to it all though; I just shared the sweet, but the bitter is that so much of what I want to do is to engage human to human interaction and if we’re behind our phones, it’s not conducive to that behavior. I’m working every day on trying to answer that question more meaningfully. My goal is for everyone who walks away to feel like they connected with someone as a human and for the experience to hopefully spark their own imagination.

AT: These experiential museums and cultural installations have been popping up a lot lately and it’s definitely a trend to talk about. Do you think this idea that you just mentioned about connecting with people and even just with your local community is what, even if subconsciously, is resonating with people? How do you see this concept growing in the years to come?

MB: You know, I think that we as a society are so desperate to have connection or to have things to go and do. Our phones have become so isolating ;we feel superficially connected but there’s a massive desire to feel like our lives are more than just this never ending scrolling process. So often that’s what society is. That’s what we spend our time doing. There’s a ripe and rich market for experience.

AT: Let’s pivot a little and talk about the design here. There’s a lot of that really popular blush-y, millennial pink happening at the Museum of Ice Cream. Does that speak to anything or is it just a color that you happen to like?

MB: I’m a color enthusiast. I put a lot of time into the research of color. It’s funny that you (and everyone) calls our signature color “millennial pink. We actually have a trademark on the exact hue. The color alludes happiness, it alludes joy. And while on some level, pink used to be very gender-specific and I think as we move into a more gender-neutral arena or more into a thinking that there is no gender, that will shift how we think of colors.

AT: As of right now, all the locations are limited duration. Are you planning on expanding or changing that in any way because of the MoIC’s popularity?

MB: Yes! We’re moving to where things will be permanent. New cities haven’t been announced yet but we’ll be both international and domestic.

AT: Do you foresee permanent locations being less popular because there isn’t as much FOMO of a temporarily location?

MB: No. I think what we provide for the community makes people want to come back all the time. San Francisco is open and continues to be open and every day, we get the same amount of people (it still sells out). I plan on constantly evolving these spaces so there’s always something new to see and experience.

AT: So, to wrap this up, I have to ask…what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

MB: We’re actually in the process of launching our own ice cream line! There are a gamut of flavors that are all so good. I’ve been building them for the last eight months, if not more. There’s a flavor called Piñata, which I really love. It’s all about the same surprise you get when you bust open a piñata…just in flavor form.

Thank you again to the Museum of Ice Cream for allowing us to visit the Miami location. For tickets and more information, visit the Museum of Ice Cream website.