Ice cream, you scream

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 17.08.2018
Are immersive exhibitions redefining what a museum is?
The summer heatwave already seems like a distant memory, but when it was at its sweltering peak the other week I received a very welcome invite to visit Scoop, a temporary museum near King’s Cross in London dedicated to the history of ice cream. In the interests of journalism – and against the probable wishes of my dentist – I went along to find out more.

Scoop is one of those immersive multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary, multi-everything exhibitions that are becoming increasingly common as – I suspect – a means of tempting audiences offline with the promise of a memorable real-life experience. The brainchild of the experimental food designers Bompas & Parr, best known for their jelly installations, the exhibition is the second to be run via their latest initiative, the British Museum of Food.

The museum, which is in the process of finding a permanent home, aims to combine traditional displays with “new forms of participatory art/science projects designed to provoke new thinking, spark curiosity and inspire wonder”. Traditionalists may quibble – there’s a bit of science and history thrown in, but from my experience of Scoop, the focus is very much on fun and entertainment rather than serious research and learning. However, museums are a broad church – why shouldn’t their definition evolve and expand as society itself changes? (And ice cream – did I mention they gave me ice cream?)

Scoop draws on the 14,000-strong collection of ice cream paraphernalia owned by Robin and Caroline Weir, including antique ice moulds, utensils and an array of vintage advertising postcards. Its USP however, lies in what visitors feel, taste, smell and create on the exhibition floor.

The sensory assault starts straight away – we’re ushered through a door that turns out to lead straight into a large freezer. At first it feels blissfully cool; soon, though, it becomes a race against time to read to the end of the text (a brief history of the ice industry) before the shivering gets too intense.

Then it’s out into a slickly designed room – complete with light bulbs in the shape of melting globes of ice cream – which takes visitors through the humble beginnings of the treat as it moved from being a rare aristocratic luxury, sculpted into shape by an increasingly extravagant array of moulds, into something consumed enthusiastically by rich and poor alike. There’s an impressive pyramid of “penny lick” glasses on display – the tiny glasses used to serve ice-cream on the cheap by Victorian street vendors. Penny licks had a deadly side – usually handed back to be reused by the next customer, they became notorious for spreading diseases like TB and were eventually banned.

History lesson over, we move into a corridor lined with buttons, which visitors can press to smell the unusual flavours that ice cream-makers once relied on before the invention of salted caramel – spices, coffee and floral aromas feature heavily. Then it’s on to the next room, a cookery school where we get to make ice-cream the old-fashioned way, before electric freezers and mixers came along. I still can’t quite explain how the science works, but it involved ice cubes, salt and a bit of womanpower. I managed to produce a minuscule amount of a substance with a vaguely ice cream-like texture, subtly flavoured with black cherry, and felt very proud.

Leaving this masterpiece behind, it's on to the next gallery. A sealed-off room promises to tell the more adult story of Glasgow’s notorious ice cream van wars, where rival drug dealers in the 1980s used ice cream vans to deliver their wares. Perhaps I’m a little jaded but the resulting video was no more shocking than an average Tuesday afternoon on the east London estate where I used to live. A specially-designed “hundreds and thousands fountain” looked impressive, but was unfortunately out of order on the day (perhaps Scoop has something in common with traditional museums displays after all).

Then we move to the future – a darkly lit, hi-tech room exploring the ice cream of tomorrow, where visitors can inhale a vanilla-flavoured fog, serve themselves a glow-in-the-dark ice cream with a strangely bitter aftertaste, and explore the physiological and psychological effects of the cold stuff. The brain scanner showing my neurological reaction to scoop of caramel ice cream was a lot of fun – the first taste sent my brainwaves into the kind of dramatic spike that would have brought paramedics running if I’d been in an A&E. I’ve always had a bit of a sweet tooth but this would seem to indicate a pathological problem.

There’s no doubt that the exhibition is fun and engaging – but after being promised a novel, immersive experience, I’m not sure it felt that different to the kind of thing that museums have been doing very well for a long time, perhaps with a few hi-tech bells and whistles thrown in. I look forward to seeing where the British Museum of Food goes next with this blend of museum and "immersive experience", however – as long as there’s a sweet treat somewhere along the way. 

Scoop has launched a competition inviting designers, architects and artists to create their own three-dimensional moulds ahead of the London Design Festival (15-23 September). The top three designs will be turned into real ice cream moulds and sold at Scoop on 20 September, while the overall winner will have their own face moulded into an ice cream. The deadline for entries is 27 August.