In San Francisco, the hottest museum of 2018, whose initial six-month run sold out entirely in just 90 minutes, featured exhibits like a unicorn sculpture in a rainbow-painted room (designed to celebrate San Francisco’s “beautiful message of cohesion, diversity, and inclusivity,” naturally) and a room with giant fake popsicles stuck into the walls (an “homage” to the ice cream truck).
One of the main attractions at a museum that debuted this fall in Manhattan allowed guests to take their photos in front of glowing diner signs that read “Ranch,” referencing not a tract of land but an allegiance to ranch dressing, that most contentious of pizza condiments. These stunty Museums — of Ice Cream, of Pizza, and other, more forsaken objects of devotion, including avocados and “cheat day foods” — are not museums. And they need to stop.
Not that there aren’t problems with the more venerated form of “museum” as we understand it. A place that by definition is “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development… [that] exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment,” museums are built upon the loaded act of contemporaneously suggesting that an item has Cultural Significance. Items that end up inside become ossified, and that’s by design: To curate is to apply a point of view that, due to the sheer scale of mankind’s intellectual and creative output, must exclude whatever’s deemed “unimportant.” Inherent in that preservation emerges the question: Who’s allowed to curate, what are they curating, and for what audience?
Still, we go to museums to see our humanity reflected back at us; at the very least, what we expect when we visit one is a bit of cultural centering, some provocation, and intellectual inquiry.
Food museums, little more than spaces slickly designed to provoke the production and distribution of “content” in its basest form across social media, do not pass that bar. (The Museum of Food and Drink being an important exception.) When a MoMA guest pays $25 to stare at a $120 million painting, that’s a price paid for access to a cultural product that would otherwise remain out of view. Sure, for many visitors, traditional museums serve as the same kind of Instagram fodder, but their role as social-media raw material is (for now) mostly secondary; the work is contextualized by experts in an environment that makes an argument, which a guest can agree with or not, about its place in culture. At these food museums, Instagram is the experience: Visitors pay to take their photos among pools of sprinkles and oversized referents of the food. There’s no interrogation about why a thing is important, why it exists. There is little actual eating.
The people and organizations behind these spaces are less interested in care and study of objects and more interested in getting their products in front of social-media-happy attendees for a fairly straightforward reason: They are literal exercises in branding, ads wrapped in the pretense of being a significant cultural experience. CADO, the avocado museum, was an “activation” by the California Avocado Commission. Online entertainment group Nameless Network launched the strongly pro-ranch pizza museum — sponsored by Hidden Valley Ranch. Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn told New York that the museum, which was designed to “engage and capture” millennial consumers, was underwritten by “strategic partnerships with companies like Tinder, Dove Chocolate, and Fox.”
Ironically, these non-museums still create the same problems that traditional museums often inscribe: In charging outlandish prices for access to an Instagram stage, these museums make everyday things more elitist. Entrance to the Museum of Ice Cream, in its San Francisco incarnation, is $38. The Avocado Museum cost $27. The Museum of Pizza, at $35, costs the equivalent of more than 12 slices at the beloved NYC spot Joe’s Pizza, and more than a standout Neapolitan slice.
And that’s why these pizza, avocado, “cheat day” museums are so grating: They’re a missed opportunity. There’s a reasonable argument that these populist-minded food museums provide a net positive. They celebrate accessible, everyday objects. They encourage a certain engagement that an institution like the Museum of Modern Art, chock full of its Picassos and its $750 paper chairs, does not. They invite in a viewer that might (rightfully!) interpret that a more-“traditional” museum is not for them. They actually get 18-year-olds through the door.
But they don’t try hard enough. The food we consume, what we enjoy, how we acquire nourishment, literally all the mechanisms that touch how we eat are fascinating. But the museums of ice cream, pizza, and avocado don’t provide any of that insight: That ice cream truck “homage” at the Museum of Ice Cream is bereft a single mention of the actually fascinating history of Mister Softee.