Fewer phones, more human connections at alum’s Museum of Ice Cream

The rainbow-walled “unicorn room” in the Museum of Ice Cream.
The rainbow-walled “unicorn room” in the Museum of Ice Cream.

Manish Vora ’02 B.A. was working in investment banking after graduating from Yale, but he spent a lot of time thinking about social interaction. He says he really valued his undergraduate experience at Yale, which emphasized human connection, and he thought about how those interactions had been eroded by the rise of social media.

He and friend Maryellis Bunn decided to try a new experiment — launching a pop-up interactive art exhibit called the Museum of Ice Cream with human connection as a core mission. Their 2016 Manhattan pop-up location sold 30,000 tickets before one wall had been erected. Now, there’s a permanent Museum of Ice Cream in an iconic bank building in the heart of San Francisco, and they’ll open more permanent locations in multiple cities across the world this fall.

Visitors enter the museum via a two-story slide, and then travel through exhibits that include a whipped cream room with a ring toss, a magnet room where guests use pink magnet letters to share their favorite ice cream memories, a banana-themed room with swings, a unicorn room featuring rainbow striped walls and a life-sized unicorn statue, and a rainbow sprinkle pool.

Ice cream is the ultimate unifier,” says Vora. “It’s accessible across the world, across all cultures.”

While the museum’s brightly colored popsicle and ice cream imagery is a natural fit for selfies, Vora says theyre more interested in coaxing people off social media and into real-life fun — not unlike what he experienced at Yale, where he is a proud Pierson-ite.

Manish Vora ’02 B.A.
Manish Vora ’02 B.A.

The social architecture of Yale was even more impressive than the physical,” Vora says. “The residential college system, the randomness in grouping people, it forced us to cross cultural and economic backgrounds and interests.”

He’s been hugely influenced, he says, by the teachings of Laurie Santos, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, whose “Psychology and the Good Life” became the most popular course in Yale’s history. It is now available to the public as an online course, “The Science of Well-Being.” In fact, Santos has become an unofficial advisor to the Museum of Ice Cream and the startup’s 40-odd employees have been following her syllabus and complete her weekly challenges on an ongoing basis.  

Vora and Santos made a joint appearance at a Yale college tea in March. “Research on happiness teaches simple strategies people can use to feel happier,” Santos says. “These include things like being more social, taking time for gratitude, resetting expectations, and so on. Manish has found ways to incorporate a lot of these tips into his designs at the Museum of Ice Cream.”

Though it might sound counterintuitive, one strategy Vora and company use is to encourage visitors to put away their smartphones. Guests work together to answer group questions before they can have their ice cream samples, and the museum has even hosted phone-free days. “Digital technology is impacting our ability to communicate and develop strong friendships,” he says. “We provide an outlet to physically connect and get off the phone.”

A service counter in the Museum of Ice Cream
(Photo credit: Nicole Sands)

It’s a key lesson from Santos’ course on happiness: “Research shows that we’re way less social than we should be to feel happy,” she says. “Loneliness is a growing issue, and it's said to be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And research shows that happy people tend to be really social. The problem is that we miss a lot of opportunities to connect with others in the real world, often because we're spending too much time on our phones.” Posting photos to social media actually diminishes our happiness, Santos adds. “We start worrying what the photos will look like rather than using the process to pay more attention to the experience,” she says. “So all the Instagramming might not be contributing to our well-being in the way we think.” Santos is launching a new podcast, “The Happiness Lab,” on Sept. 17.

Vora says the Millennial generation and Generation Z in particular crave greater connectivity. In 2020, the Museum of Ice Cream is launching a second experience in multiple cities. He can’t reveal the details yet, but says it is not ice cream related and is “focused on human connection.”

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911