A bittersweet experience

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As the final curtain of streamers drew for Sugar Republic in Melbourne – a dessert exhibition at the old MacPherson factory in Collingwood – interested goers will have to wait patiently for another.

The pop-up museum, dedicated to all things sugar, took five months to curate. Drawing back to childhood nostalgia and Australian classics, director Allison Jones hoped that her audience could take a trip down memory lane with their visit. 

Exhibition entrance (Image: Jacklyn Yeong)

“It’s a fun place designed to bring a smile to people’s faces as well as letting them explore each different room and experience,” she said. “I hope they get to revisit their childhood for a little while, have fun posing for photos and play in a way that they normally wouldn’t do.” 

When I first watched a sneak peak video of Sugar Republic from The Urban List, I was extremely delighted as I was just going through an obsession over New York’s Museum of Ice Cream and Colour Factory – an interactive exhibit in New York, which was coincidentally where Jones drew her inspiration. 

Before committing to a visit, as one ticket costs $38 including a booking fee, I did some research. I read a range of blog reviews online with enticing descriptions such as “magical“, “unique” and “delicious” while simultaneously scrolling through a series of pictures on Sugar Republic’s Instagram page. All the content looked extremely promising with bold, exciting and fun interactive art installations that screamed “Insta-worthy”.

As superficial as it sounds, I was there for the gram. However, one of the lowlights – mind the pun – was the lighting issue. The walls of each of the 12 sensory spaces were described as painted with colours such as “minty green”, “raspberry rush” and “burnt apricot” to match the sugary theme. When we stepped into the first sensory room, my friend and I found that the bright colours were unfortunately dulled out by the lighting. I also noticed that although there were large hanging LED ceiling lights, the high ceiling walls of the old MacPherson factory definitely affected the brightness radiating from the lights to the entire exhibition. 

  

  

Images: Jacklyn Yeong

It is important to consider that the photos shared on Instagram or blogs could definitely be a byproduct of professional equipment and filter tools. When I went home and looked into some of the tagged photos of the exhibition, I found that some of the photos were pretty similar to mine without any editing. “Having such an Insta-friendly place has meant we have seen some amazing imagery and shares, and this has been a great by-product of what Sugar Republic is all about,” said Jones. I was prompted to pay Sugar Republic a visit because of this very reason, but I wouldn’t complain if more room-filling light were installed to improve the brightness for better gram photos. Having to strongly filter my photos was definitely a huge set back for me. 

Instagram vs Reality (Image: Jacklyn Yeong)

Jordan Ferney, creator of Colour Factory told Wired that she wanted each of the rooms to look just as good in photos as it did in person when they came across lighting decisions. “There were a few decisions we had to make,” she told Wired. “Like, even with the lighting, where maybe a warmer light would have felt better to be there but a whiter light looks better on Instagram.” I have not physically been to any of these overseas pop-up museums, but to compare I watched some vlogs documenting visits to the Museum of Ice Cream, Colour Factory and Manila’s Dessert Museum. I found that what all of them had in common were either lower ceiling and lighting setups or smaller rooms equipped with surrounding light. 

Another downside to my visit were missing installations. I was really looking forward to (fake) hug a life-sized Bubble O’Bill, crawl into an igloo made up of large donuts and “float” in the bubble gum pit with huge donuts and fairy bread floaties whilst being photographed. Those were disappointingly absent during our visit as well as some others.

Jesslyn Mooi from Melbourne also wasn’t satisfied with parts of the exhibition. She said her experience differed from what she saw in her friend’s pictures. 

“We did not see the slinkys from the ceiling, massive ice creams that people were licking and there was only one donut in the pool,” Jesslyn said to me on Instagram.  

   

Left, ice cream pictures during my visit. (Image: Jacklyn Yeong) vs. Life-sized ice creams found in blogs. (Image: Orenda Magazine)

   

Left: Ball pit during my visit (Image: Jacklyn Yeong) vs. Ball pit in pictures (Image: Sugar Republic)

Despite that, the eight-week interactive sensory exhibition was sold out weeks ago prior to its final day. While maintenance such as “cleaning, checking on all features for damage and topping up treats” were regulated for the upkeep of each sensory rooms, in the “Bubblegum Bathroom” where we could “dance inside a giant gum ball machine”, my friend and I saw a staff desperately trying to close the zip attached for another visitor but failed. 

“The zips for the gum ball machine installation was broken and air wasn’t able to fill it,” said Jesslyn.

Gum Ball Machine (Image: Jacklyn Yeong)

“Sadly, some of the exhibits proved to not be durable enough for the general public so we swapped them for others,” said Jones when addressing the props issue.

“The amount of people coming through every day was not something we had expected – we are always looking to maintain and provide the best experience.”

The thing about “selfie factories”, or “made-for-Instagram museums” – a term thoroughly explained by Wired author Arielle Pardes – is that there are always questions to answer such as “What do we get out of these spaces?”, “Do they make us think and reflect and see the world differently?” and “Does the experience inside amount to the little square photo you post online?”

Neon wall art (Image: Jacklyn Yeong)

I am not saying that it was an all-negative experience for me. I have managed to save some of my pictures through filter apps, the sweet neon art wall delivered a treat for the gram and jumping out of a giant birthday cake definitely plastered smiles on our faces that contributed to our Instagram stories. Beautiful artwork done by Aussie artist Dawn Tan deserved a huge shoutout as well. But there is usually a huge reality check following visits to selfie factories like these that are “well-hyped”, which is why memes of “Instagram vs. Reality” exists. And as students who need to be more vigilant in spending, there is the inevitable reflection to ask if the experience was worth our money. 

Experiences are subjective and differ from perspectives. I have a few friends who visited the dessert exhibition and had a good time. Maura Judkis for The Washington Post wrote that, “A photo of yourself experiencing something – even if it only exists as pixels on your phone – is a thing, a thing that people want. It’s a thing they pay extravagantly for,” which I think is most accurate to encapsulate my visit.

Following its huge success in Melbourne, Sugar Republic is set to run throughout October in its next tour stop – Brisbane. 

 

 

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