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How Corporations Harness — and Hijack — the Idea of the Museum

The trendy adoption of the word “museum” has the potential to undermine the trust placed in cultural institutions, perhaps altering our relationship to culture, art, and commerce in the process.

The Instagram account of the Museum of Selfies, as it appeared on April 3, 2018 (via Instagram)

Once upon a time, museums were repositories for the objects and stories that defined human history. But these days, they are also places to pull out your smartphone and photograph yourself. On Sunday, the Museum of Selfies opened in California. In 2016, the so-called Museum of Ice Cream was one of the most popular selfie spots in the world. And the most Instagrammed restaurant in America, The Sugar Factory, recently announced that it will soon open a Museum of Candy.

For Instagram lovers, these developments may be cause for excitement. But the trendy adoption of the word “museum” has the potential to undermine the trust placed in cultural institutions, perhaps altering our relationship to culture, art, and commerce in the process.

The Museum of Candy, founded by a Kardashian-endorsed restaurant chain with enough capital to lease 30,000 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate, appears to be the largest such project yet. It will be housed in the 19th-century church that became The Limelight, the sprawling Warholian nightclub of the 80s and 90s. In a press release, the Museum of Candy promises plenty of picture-taking opportunities: “the largest selection of candy in the world for museum patrons to photograph, study and most importantly EAT!” Clearly, the organizers were careful to build selfie spots into the space: “Looking to take a picture in the Gumdrop Room, or lose your children temporarily in the candy cane fashion show while you are mesmerized by the candy and gummy bear-making process in the candy café?”

The Limelight building, which once housed a church, was converted into a nightclub and will now be the site of the Museum of Candy (via Wikimedia).

The design of selfie-driven “museums” seems to align with other experiential selfie spots like Color Factory, 29Rooms, and Dream Room. They revolve a highly successful business model: sell tickets for $35 to people itching to Instagram themselves, then immerse them in hyperpigmented landscapes funded by corporate sponsors.

The key difference is  that recently, more and more spaces have been harnessing — or hijacking — the term “museum.” Early selfie-driven museums tended to be temporary projects, often founded by plucky millennials. In 2015, at the Museum of Feelings in New York City, “visitors explored five responsive rooms on an unexpected, immersive journey.” The space was an advertisement for Glade, the maker of bathroom sprays. In 2016, the Museum of Ice Cream was the 10th most instagrammed museum in the world.

The 34-year-old co-founder of the Museum of Selfies, Tommy Honton, said the space hinged on the word museum. “When we got that name, Museum of Selfies, it just hit. You’re going to catch people’s attention immediately with that title,” he told Hyperallergic Honton seemed to relish the potential for controversy. “You’re going to definitely draw ire or support or confusion,” he said. “There are some art magazines that are going to call us the downfall of humankind.”

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When the Museum of Sex opened in the Flatiron District, in 2002, the New York State Board of Regents denied its application for nonprofit status. The institution claimed that it wanted “to preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality.” The Board seemed to think that the subject matter, or its presentation, didn’t deserve the title museum.

A past installation at the Museum of Sex in New York (via Flickr user Billie Grace Ward)

The Board’s sensitivity makes some sense. Museum is a loaded word. Organizations like The American Alliance of Museums and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) uphold rigorous standards for accreditation; the official designation “museum” can increase credibility and access to government and private grants. ICOM defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity.” Not surprisingly, selfie spots aren’t typically accredited; for them, the title “museum” is self-proclaimed.

Throughout history, the notion of what constitutes a “museum” has evolved alongside culture. The term derives from the Greek mouseion, which translates to “seat of the Muses.” In the 3rd century B.C., these were places designated for contemplation, similar to modern-day universities and libraries. In the 17th century, museums functioned as cabinets of curiosities, private collections where wealthy Europeans housed cultural artifacts obtained through their travels to exotic places. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the museum took on its present-day role as a public-facing institution with cultural and artistic authority.

Today, fueled in part by technology, many traditional institutions are continuing  to reinvent themselves. “The notion that we have of museums today is different than it was even 20 years ago,” said Glenn Wharton, a museum studies professor at New York University. He connects these shifts to the evolution of the word “curator.” “You can curate a menu at a restaurant now. It’s used much more widely than ever before,” he said. “With the changing role of museums, the power of the curator has been challenged.”

In his book Ways of Curating, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist connects the activity of curation to modern life at large. “There is, currently, a certain resonance between the idea of curating and the contemporary idea of the creative self, floating freely through the world making aesthetic choices of where to go and what to eat, wear, and do,” he writes. Obrist thinks the Internet has sped up “the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, raw data, processed information, images, disciplinary knowledge and material products that we are witnessing today.”

In other words, there’s a sudden influx of stuff, and a greater need to organize all of it. “This contemporary resonance, however, risks producing a kind of bubble in the value attached to the idea of curating, and has to be resisted,” he writes. “Curating follows art.” 

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To create the Museum of Selfies, Honton and his partner, Tair Mamedov, drew on their experience as game designers in LA’s immersive and interactive community, namely in  escape rooms. “You want to make sure people’s adrenaline and dopamine levels fall and rise around certain things. When they turn a corner, that corner is an opportunity to surprise them,” said Honton. “We’re basically drug dealers. You’re doling out these emotions, and if it’s done well, people can walk out with this beautiful experience, having felt a curated, fully realized experience.”

He stressed the importance of context in the museum’s displays. A lifelong lover of museums, he spoke breathlessly about the self-portraits of Rembrandt and Albert Dürer in relation to selfies, about etchings on cave walls and the 19th-century daguerreotype. “If you put a bunch of pretty stuff in a space, that’s not a museum,” he said. “With us, using the world ‘museum,’ we wanted to make sure we held true to that.” He also wanted the museum to appeal to a wide audience. “I work with at-risk youth. I’m around a lot of people who don’t find museums accessible,” he said.

Giant food sculptures on view at the Museum of Selfies (photo by Christine Ro for Hyperallergic)

Still, it is hard to separate these newfangled museums from commercial interests. A ticket to the Museum of Selfies costs $25. The Museum of Ice Cream’s sponsors include American Express, Dove Chocolate, and the dating app Tinder, which created a room called “Tinder Land,” inviting visitors to sit on an ice cream sandwich swing for two. At the future site of the Museum of Candy, a 150-seat Sugar Factory restaurant will feature “the brand’s signature 24-scoop King Kong Sundae, monster burgers and insane milkshakes along with the smoking alcohol-infused candy goblet drinks.”

The future Museum of Candy will feature a restaurant serving, among other things, “the brand’s signature 24-scoop King Kong Sundae” (photo by The Food Network, courtesy The Sugar Factory).

The founder of Sugar Factory, Charissa Davidovici, originally agreed through a PR representative to an interview with Hyperallergic. But the representative abruptly canceled when I expressed an interest in the finances of the company, saying: “We will have to pass on the interview at this time as Sugar Factory doesn’t talk about their finances and investors.”

Wharton, the NYU professor, acknowledged the need to be critical of these relationships to heavy-handed commercialism. Still, he doesn’t see it as a giant leap from more traditional institutions flouting “thinly-veiled corporate sponsors of exhibitions” on its museum walls. Banks, telecom companies, and oil behemoths have all lent support to major museums. “If that’s not an advertisement, what is it?” said Wharton. “I think that’s more dangerous.”

Still, it’s striking — if not exactly surprising — that for-profit ventures are borrowing the trust and authority symbolized by museums. “As a capitalist society people are going to co-opt trusted institutions, or the ideas that trusted institutions represent, for commercial gain,” Wharton said. “It’s just the nature of our society.”

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