Arts and Entertainment

How “Instagram Trap” Museums are Warping the Art and Museum World

In a world driven by social media, new “museums” designed to be Instagram-friendly are rapidly changing the art scene, while traditional art museums are forced to adapt

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Picture a pit filled with pink sprinkles, children squealing as they speed down a twisting tube slide, and an ice cream bar with unlimited samples. Is it a playground? Is it a birthday party? Is it Heaven? 

The answer is none of the above: it’s the Museum of Ice Cream, a Manhattan attraction that draws tens of thousands of tourists and New Yorkers alike, all hoping to snap the perfect picture in one of the museum’s many photo-ops. As a result of this phenomenon, the Museum of Ice Cream is labeled as one of many “Instagram traps”—expensive destinations designed to be interactive and appealing to a new generation of social media users. 

People usually flock to these Instagram traps to take a memorable photo for their feed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem arises when consumer-driven Instagram traps designed to generate revenue start to label themselves as “museums.” Museums, in the traditional sense, are places where visitors can observe art from a safe distance, often without photography, in order to respect copyright laws and preserve older artworks that may be sensitive to camera flashes. However, places like the Museum of Ice Cream are pushing the boundaries of this definition—where does that put institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Attendance at “traditional” art museums has fallen sharply in recent years, and while the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in this decline, it is undeniable that the problem is larger than the pandemic: whether we like it or not, Instagram trap museums have begun to shape how we experience art. 

The most appealing aspect of Instagram traps like the Museum of Ice Cream or similar destinations—like the Museum of Pizza or Museum of Selfies—is that visitors have the rare opportunity to become a part of the art, experiencing it in a hands-on way. From jumping into a sprinkle pool to posing with gooey mounds of pizza cheese, there is no doubt that these “museums” offer a uniquely immersive experience that most traditional museums cannot.

Ironically, the concept of Instagram trap museums was largely influenced by the rise of installation art in the traditional art museum world of the mid-20th century. Installation arts are artworks specially designed to occupy a specific space in a museum and can be touched and walked through by museumgoers. The first museums to host installations saw massive increases in attendance while those installations were on display; one example is Yayoi Kusama’s famous “Infinity Room” installations, which place the viewer into a room with walls made of mirrors so that they are surrounded by their reflection. Ever since Kusama created her first Infinity Room in 1965 for the Queensland Art Gallery, the installations have toured the globe, garnering worldwide attention and impressive ticket sales wherever they appear. Above all, the novel opportunity to interact with installation art such as Kusama’s was what drew people in. Yet museums could not keep these installations on display forever, nor could every artwork be as interactive, since museums must protect pieces such as paintings and sculptures from touching to prevent damage, vandalism, and theft. This left a large gap between the supply and demand for interactive installation art exhibits; people wanted more and were evidently willing to pay. Thus, to fill the gap, Instagram trap museums devoted solely to installation art were born.

Many Instagram trap museums have taken the approach of replicating well-known installation art pieces to captivate visitors. For instance, Kusama’s Infinity Rooms have become a staple in museums like NYC’s Museum of Illusions. However, this mimicry is not out of respect or admiration for Kusama—it’s a soulless, cash-driven capitalization of her success. These museums are not thinking about whether or not the Infinity Rooms they make will provoke introspection and wonder—they are calculating how much money people will pay to take a mirror selfie in a room with endless reflections. (Spoiler alert: it’s a lot of money. NYC Instagram trap museum tickets average at about $40, while more traditional NYC art museum tickets range from $0-$20.) Additionally, installation artists like Kusama are almost never credited or paid by the museums blatantly copying their work.

On the other side of the spectrum, some museums have taken an entirely different route, opting to stray away completely from their installation art origins. In fact, they have strayed away from art altogether, instead focusing on building entertaining interactive components such as photobooths, seesaws, or ball pits, none of which are really intended to be art.

Regardless of whether they’re ripping off masterpieces or ignoring artistry completely, Instagram trap museums are devaluing art in the contemporary world. They warp the definition and intent of art by copying artworks for purely capitalistic purposes and twisting public expectations of what museums should be like, but more importantly, they also sever the essential bonds between viewing art, thinking critically about art, and appreciating art by bringing social media into the mix. Visitors to these kinds of museums interact with their surroundings mainly through a phone screen and are encouraged to snap pictures whenever they can. This sets a harmful precedent for traditional museums by teaching visitors to enter museums with social media in mind, pushing them to view art in museums as photo-ops and to prioritize taking pictures over truly absorbing the art, a behavior that is proven to diminish museum experiences. A 2018 study by NYU Professor Alixandria Barasch that tracked the eye movement and sentiments of visitors to museums and other tourist sites revealed that those who took photos tended to enjoy the visiting experience less than those who did not, with subjects who took photos reporting higher levels of anxiety during the experience. Instagram trap museums influence people’s perceptions of what art is the most appealing, driving them away from traditional art museums and toward whatever is most Instagramable.

Consequently, traditional museums have been forced to adapt in order to recapture public attention. In an effort to compete with trendy Instagram trap museums, a majority of traditional museums have had to rapidly revise their strict photography policies. Bans on photography are simply no longer beneficial to museums in a world where many museumgoers have social media at the front of their minds. These traditional museums have no choice but to feed into the social media craze to stay relevant and attract young visitors, despite the difficulties that allowing photography may bring, such as light damage and copyright violations.

Instagram trap museums, like most things on Instagram and social media, may ultimately turn out to be a fad and become a trend of the past, but their effect on traditional art museums and our perceptions of art will inevitably leave a lasting impact. There is nothing wrong with going to Instagram trap museums to update your feed or simply to enjoy an interactive experience; these “museums” can provide an entertaining break from everyday life for many. However, the damage to our relationships with art is undeniable. We must learn to make a conscious effort to engage with art outside the realm of social media—only then can we begin to restore our critical connections to art and remove art from social media’s superficial and unabashedly capitalistic grasp.