Pop-Up museums provide perfect selfies, promote Insta-fame

Attendees are not allowed to eat the sculptures at Candytopia — but free candy is in every room. | Photo courtesy of Candytopia staff

BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | If you can get enough loyal followers to follow your social media feed, and let businesses know that you’re willing to tag their product in your posts, then you’ve got it made as a highly-paid social media “Influencer.” But how can a nobody look glamorous enough to build such a following in the first place? There are places in New York that exist primarily to facilitate selfie fanatics in their quest for Insta-fame. They call themselves “pop-up museums,” and wannabe Instagram stars can get pictures of themselves in dozens of photogenic locations. For a price.

The recently closed Museum of Ice Cream was a notorious example where people could pay a $35 fee for a tasting tour of ice creams, and get an educational experience. Coincidentally, the colorful museum was simply begging for selfies. Although the MoIC is gone, a dozen similar pop-ups have taken its place, all purporting to provide art or education through their glamorous set pieces.

At the RoséMansion, tipsy visitors lined up to take selfies by this antique payphone. | Photo by Charles Battersby

We visited them all, seeking out fellow art lovers and intellectuals, but mostly found young women taking pictures of themselves with the art. The Rosé Mansion (running in Midtown through Oct. 7) makes a legitimate effort to be educational. Attendees can taste eight different kinds of wine there, and the staff will answer questions about the distinct traits of each vintage.

Of all the pop-ups we visited this one had the greatest number of spots for pictures, and made the most efficient use of its space. Every wall was colorful, with some form of art, or at least an inspirational slogan painted on it. Aside from the larger rooms, there were phone-booth-sized cubbyholes, and ornate chairs in the corners.

On our trip there, very few women could be observed asking about the artwork, or the history of wine. It was a tipsy selfie fest and, yes, it was just ladies. The sole gentleman that we encountered in this pink palace was clearly there as a personal photographer and luggage porter.

For a more child-friendly experience Candytopia is running near Herald Square through November. There’s no booze, but anyone who dreamed of a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory will love this experience. There is free candy in every room, actors doing scripted material, and an abundance of selfie spots.

The crowd at Candytopia was mostly parents snapping pics of their kids. A few unescorted adults were present, but such sightings were relatively rare during our afternoon visit. The place is designed with thematic rooms that feature art made from candy. These range from giant sculptures to 2D re-creations of famous paintings. One such painting is Warhol’s infamous soup can, which raises the question, “If the original is art, then why not the candy recreation?” Despite the potential for serious discussion about the nature of art, the staff confirmed that most of the attendees were more concerned with snapping pics.

One of the smaller pop-ups is Wonderworld in Soho. It uses an “Alice in Wonderland” theme with several highly photogenic rooms. However, it’s more than just a bunch of selfie spots. People who want to learn a new skill, and have a social experience can opt for the weekend tea party and flower arranging class (at a higher ticket price).

The 29 Rooms exhibit (through Sept. 16 in Brooklyn) lives up to its name, with quite a lot of rooms, each by a different artist, and often promoting a product, or nonprofit organization. Some are selfie spots, but we were happy to see that several are based around interaction with other guests, and encourage people to set down their phone and talk to a real human. One room is based on sound, using “kinetic sculptures” to make Indonesian gamelan music. This room is kept mostly dark, thereby discouraging selfies.

Room For Tea recreates Hong Kong’s neon landscape. |Photo courtesy of Room For Tea staff

Room For Tea in Chinatown (open through Sept. 22) celebrates bubble tea. Six rooms representing different aspects of tea can be explored, and everyone who attends gets a cup of sweet bubble tea. Room For Tea also has a serene room where people can join in a tea ceremony, and try hot tea, while learning about the more traditional way of preparing it, as opposed to the modern sweeter drinks.

We found, once again, that the selfies were the focus, with few people interested in the quieter tea ceremony. One of the staff members commented with a knowing smile, and simply said, “They’re millennials.”

This generation gap was only broken by Candytopia, where parents who are a bit too old to qualify as millennials were accompanied by children whose generation hasn’t yet earned a nickname. All of the other experiences in our travels were primarily populated by overdressed young women, heavily made up, looking ready to shoot a print ad for tea, wine, or whatever product was obscured behind their acrylic nails.

This flower wall at The Winky Lux Experience represents the tiny flowers inside the company’s lip stain. | Photo courtesy of Winky Lux staff

The relatively venerable Dream Machine in Brooklyn is one of the longer-running pop-ups. It has been going since April, and closed last weekend. Each room embodies some aspect of dreaming, and the staff was quite willing to discuss the symbolism of each one, for those who asked. The rooms are often quite entertaining (the smoke bubble room delighted us on our visit), and staff is on hand to usher visitors into at least one secret room as well. Alas, the staff, once again, told us that the majority of attendees were there for pictures, and rarely asked what the rooms are intended to represent.

Running indefinitely, The Winky Lux Experience in Soho unabashedly courts beauty-obsessed women looking for selfie spots. Winky Lux is a cosmetics company, and their popup museum is built right into their store. Each room is thematically linked to one of their products, and the $10 admission fee is turned into a credit at the store. It’s a good prospect for people who are already planning on buying some makeup.

Of the pop-ups that we visited, the Color Factory in Soho (closing Sept. 16) proved to be the most artistic, and least selfie-focused. There was a great deal of interaction with the staff, and most of the rooms had something to do, rather than just an object to take pictures with. In fact, one exhibit was a shelf containing “nothing,” accompanied by a lecture on the scientific and philosophical nature of Nothingness.

Although many attendees intend to exploit these pop-ups for Instagram fame, the customers are essentially paying for the opportunity to promote the very event that they are attending. Thanks to would-be social media influencers, every one of these businesses gets free advertising from people posting pictures of their glamorous life. Or at least the glamorous life they want to project through Instagram.

For determined selfie fanatics who’ve already made the rounds at all the current pop-ups, the Museum of Pizza is coming to NYC, Oct. 13-28.

Lighting and set design create dreamlike experiences at Dream Machine. | Photo by a Dream Machine visitor

The author explores an interactive room-sized Flow Chart at Color Factory. | Photo courtesy of Color Factory staff

Colorful treats were plentiful at Color Factory. | Photo by Charles Battersby

Closing day at New York’s Museum of Ice Cream (MoIC). It’s in San Francisco now. | Photo courtesy of MoIC staff

One Response to Pop-Up museums provide perfect selfies, promote Insta-fame

  1. awanderingminstrel

    Interesting concept… Not really a fan of "Instafame" myself, especially in travel writing/related (there's so much more to a destination than grabbing a pretty picture!), but at least this looks like it would be fun. 🙂

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