A noticeable trend has gripped the food world in recent years. The bare walls, the beautiful tableware, and the strangely coloured lattes aren’t just about creating the perfect dining experience. The way your food is arranged on the plate and your cocktail garnished is geared towards more than immediate aesthetic pleasure. It’s for Instagram. Whether this is done consciously or not, our food spaces seem increasingly to be designed to create perfectly square vignettes.
It’s a charge levelled, and not without some justification, at the wave of “food-based” museums that have been popping up across the US in recent years. Pizza museums, egg museums, and most notable of all, the Museum of Ice Cream in New York. Created by an “unnervingly millennial” twentysomething, the multisensory pop-up contains exhibitions on the frozen dessert, including a “Rainbow Room” and pool of plastic sprinkles. Critics have blasted the museum as little more than a glorified selfie op, but its New York location took $5.4 million in the first days of opening. Needless to say, it looks great on Instagram.
Perhaps inspired by the Museum of Ice Cream's success, the food museum trend is now spreading to Britain. This month, Bompas and Parr opens its own ice cream museum in King’s Cross, London. Known for staging food-based stunts, the culinary arts studio’s previous projects include creating a cloud of gin and replicas of the Houses of Parliament in jelly. SCOOP: A Wonderful Ice Cream World promises to “bring your favourite dessert to life in a total sensory immersion.”
When I hear about SCOOP, I am curious (read: sceptical) about how educational its exhibitions will prove. Like the Museum of Ice Cream, would it contain visual spectacle, rather than historical substance? Kitsch puff that makes good pictures but not much else?
Maybe my skepticism is too hasty. Because behind the flamboyance of Bompas and Parr’s culinary spectacles, there’s a serious passion for food. For many years, the founding duo—Sam Bompas and Harry Parr—have been pursuing the notion of trying to create a British Museum of Food, an institution that would hold its own as an essential national treasure alongside the likes of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. In 2015, they created a mini British Museum of Food, complete with a banana plantation in an upstairs room designed to highlight the impact of global monocultures on food security. Try and Instagram that.
“The Museum of Ice Cream in the States was incredibly successful and it’s impressive what they’ve done,” Bompas tells me. “But if you look at the experience of it, it’s a little bit, well … it’s very, very Instagram-friendly. It’s almost entirely catering to you taking pictures of yourself and your friends in front of a pink background. I don’t think it fits for me what I’d like as my museum experience. I want pictures of people—great. But I also want interesting experiences and I want to learn something.”
The British Museum of Food project showed Bompas and Parr that there was an appetite (pardon the pun) for exhibitions exploring how we eat. Ice cream was an obvious next step—a foodstuff we, in these divided Brexit days, can all agree is great. The most democratic of all the comfort foods.
Bompas also knew a pair of ice cream enthusiasts, Robin and Caroline Weir, who have accumulated perhaps the largest collection of ice cream-related paraphernalia in the world—14,000 items, including early recipe books featuring flavours like daffodil, carnation, aniseed, and sherry; Victorian ice moulds and ice cream makers; right through to Andy Warhol prints, saucy postcards, and the pastel-coloured statues that sit outside seaside shops advertising the ice creams on sale inside.
“They told me they had this collection but that no one was interested,” Bompas says. “We saw it as an opportunity to actually give a serious collection some serious thought, to explore the history of and our relationship with ice cream.”
So, I enter SCOOP, ready to explore. I’m welcomed by a video of Robin Weir, who introduces the exhibition. Then I open a door into an actual freezer. Yes, the collection is serious. But it looks like it's going to be at least a little bit fun, too.
Beyond the freezer is a chamber that looks more like a traditional museum, full of ice cream artefacts. Each one comes with a fascinating story. I learn that when ice cream was the preserve of the posh, chefs would try and recreate the main course people had eaten once again in ice cream form, using moulds—a sort of Victorian trompe l’oeil in ice cream form. In one display, I spot a mould shaped like a giant jacket potato, such was the commitment to realism. I have no doubt that had there been social media in the 19th century, the influencers would have gone mad for that faux potato.
“In 1828, an apricot ice cost 10 shillings—that’s the equivalent of a pound for a bite of ice cream,” says Lisa Slominski, SCOOP’s curator. “The invention of the Penny Lick is when ice cream became democratised.”
Piled up like a Champagne fountain in the centre of the room are the Penny Licks, glass ice cream containers used to serve the treat before the cone was invented. It seems innocuous enough until Slominski reveals that sharing them led to an outbreak of tuberculosis. They were banned in 1898.
Fortunately the cone had been invented by that point, and the next phase of the museum shows the impact of ice cream on popular culture in all its pastel-shaded glory. Ice cream became ubiquitous—in cartoons, in film, on holidays. A wall of postcards, ranging from adverts for old school Viennetta to saucy seaside double entendres (“Hurry darling, before it gets soft”), faces me down in one room.
“There are over 500 postcards here. Most are holiday postcards but there’s one here about birth control …” says Slominski.
Bompas explains: “Ice cream counters in America would quite often sell you your prescriptions as well. People were able to order laxatives in their ice cream so no one would know.”
No one I know would want to Instagram that. Or how the link between ice cream and pharmaceutical substances later escalated: in the 1980s, rival drug gangs commandeered ice cream van turf in Glasgow to sell their illegal wares.
“It resulted in the murder of five people,” says Slominski, a sombre note among the brightness.
But ice cream is its own kind of high. Round another corner, someone hands me an EEG headset to wrap around my forehead and a tub of ice cream. As I take a bite, the otherwise straight coloured lines showing on the screen in front of me start dancing. This is my brain internally rejoicing with the kick of sugar, cream, fat, and salt.
I feel the twitch for my phone—I want to capture this in a photo. I look for permission. I wouldn’t want to trivialise SCOOP's serious historical exhibitions with an Insta Story.
“Ice cream has always been about spectacle,” Bompas reassures me. “Historically that was aristocratic, like the Sun King serving a crate of ice cream at a banquet at Versailles. But now everyone is their own little regent, with their own following. Ice cream is something you can demonstrate taste in. So why wouldn’t you show that off?”
Just because something is educational doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sharable, and, happily, SCOOP’s pink walls lend themselves to that perfectly.