MM Musings

MM Musings, vol. 26: the rise of the "Instagrammable" museum

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum. These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning. I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Instagram-food-pictures-meals-funny-ecardThe recent notion of a "made for Instagram" museum experience is a topic that is near and dear to my IG-loving heart. I've been on Instagram for about a year and half, and it's easily become my favorite social media platform.  The idea of designing restaurants, hotels, and food with Instagram in mind has officially spilled over into the museum world, so today I want to explore not how museums are using this immensely popular app (800 million users and counting), but the pros and cons of offering museum spaces and exhibitions partially based on how photogenic they are.  I also want to talk about how "Instagrammable" the Makeup Museum would be if it occupied a physical space.

There were a few articles I consulted for background information, most of which mentioned the same few museums and exhibitions that seem to be made for Instagram:  most notably, the Museum of Ice Cream, Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms, The Color Factory, the Rain Room, Refinery29's 29 Rooms, and the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery's 2015 "Wonder" exhibition. While the directors and curators behind these insist that they did not design them solely for photo-opp purposes, for many visitors it's the main takeaway.  And some museum professionals and art critics have questioned whether that's a good thing. 

First, let's look at the pros of having Instagram-friendly spaces and exhibitions.  Many agree that highly photogenic, immersive, colorful exhibitions are an excellent way to boost attendance and name recognition.  Not only do these exhibitions get more people in the door, once visitors are there they tend to wander to other parts of the museum. In an insightful article for the Washington City Paper, Kriston Capps argues that the made-for-Instagram museum has been a boon to DC's art scene:  "Locally, if there’s a concern about museums serving too many sweets and not enough vegetables, it’s that exhibits that are low on nutrition—meaning shows that lack scholarship, quietude, or the possibility of an anti-social experience—will crowd out shows of substance...quieter shows aren’t going anywhere; in fact, museum directors say that more people are seeing them than ever before, thanks to the louder stuff.  'There are incalculable benefits when a place that has long been almost invisible in Washington’s crowded museum scene suddenly is one of the hottest destinations in town,' says Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun, the longtime director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery. 'Yes, it helps with funding appeals when potential supporters say ‘Wow, the Renwick!’ instead of ‘Where’s the Renwick?'  Surely those museums saw upticks in attendance from Rain Roomers who wandered into other art exhibitions. People queued up outside the building means more foot traffic through the doors—always a plus. And museum boards, donors, and members are no doubt pleased to see high-water marks for attendance...D.C. museums are betting that spectacles are a way to convert crowds into viewers." 

Secondly, even if critics don't think a particular exhibition is actually art and more of a spectacle made for photo opps, does it really matter?  People are having fun in a museum setting, which ostensibly is a good thing.  And this might lead them to think about art and museums on a more meaningful level than the pool of ice cream sprinkles they just swam in.  As former editorial fellow for the Atlantic Katherine Schwab notes, "Engaging people with art in any way possible is, for many museums, the first step in persuading them of its deeper value. And taking photos of works, however performative it may be, is a way for people to show off what’s important to them."  Adds Russell Dornan for Museum ID, "By photographing their way around a museum, visitors may engage in a deeper way than they otherwise would. Crucially, they also spread the word."

But there are detractors who believe museums shouldn't fully embrace the Instagrammable hype.  For one thing, it might have the opposite effect on art's worth, reducing it to a prop rather than enhancing its cultural and historical merit. "Nowadays, art for the sake of art is much less desirable if you can’t document it with an aesthetically pleasing photo to showoff your followers. Art is becoming more of a supporting background in our self-portraits than something of stand-alone value," warns Annie Francl in Shapeshift Magazine

Secondly, people may not even be enjoying the experience after all; instead, they're only there to one-up their Instagram buddies and keep up with the Joneses.  The Cut asked several people waiting in line for Kusama's Infinity Mirrors about why they were there.  The responses? "All my friends on Instagram have gone. It looks cool" and "I saw them all over the place on Instagram. A lot of friends have come here."  Indeed, the "worthless without pics" mantra is alive and well.  Says Shelby Lerman for Thrive Global, "[The] bigger issue here is not that these spaces are made for Instagram, as seemingly everything today is made with Instagram in mind. It’s that these spaces are created to be adult playgrounds and a huge part of that play depends on being able to prove that you’ve played. (As the saying goes, Instagram or it didn’t happen.) It is not experiencing for the sake of experience: it’s doing something specifically so you can record it and post it to your followers...Plus, these whimsical wonderlands encourage you to shake loose from your daily routine, but also rest on the idea that you’ll be grabbing your smartphone to do it. And to think that spaces are made less habitable in real life so that they work better on social media is a strange thought indeed."  If people aren't fully immersed in the exhibition experience because they feel an urgent need to document it, museum-going may seem more of a chore than anything else.  This PBS article highlights a quote from the premier membership manager at the Seattle Art Museum, who, while heartened at seeing the lines stretching around the block for Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibition, also "felt social media usage hindered the experience, for some users, of an exhibit designed for quiet reflection on the idea of infinity. 'Instead, people went in there and were like, ‘I only have 30 seconds to take the best picture, the coolest picture,' he said.'" The article also mentions a study at Fairfield University in Connecticut which found that museum-goers didn't remember the art when they took photos of it as well as when they were simply observing the art.  Along those lines, in the frenzy to get the perfect photo, art can even be damaged - one of Kusama's sculptures was shattered due to an overzealous selfie-taker in the Infinity Mirrors exhibition.  

Perhaps the best expression of my main concern with highly Instagrammable museums comes from Wired Magazine, which produced a short video and more in-depth article on the subject.  What benefit do people really get out of the made-for-Instagram museum?  "Maybe the question is not whether or not these spaces contain art, or even what their relationship to social media says at all, but instead: What do we get out of these spaces? Do they make us think and reflect and see the world differently? Or does the experience inside amount to the little square photo you post online?"  I know that if the Museum occupied a physical space, I certainly wouldn't want it to be just about photo opps with oversized lipsticks, fun though they are.  I want people to actually learn something about makeup and art.  And I know when I visit museums I take a few photos here and there, but not for Instagram purposes.  I take them to help me remember how special it was to experience the art first-hand - I'm far more invested in learning something and simply observing the art rather than documenting everything I saw or trying to get a selfie.  I'd probably be somewhat disappointed if I visited the Museum of Ice Cream since, to my knowledge, there's no actual attempt to provide people with the history of ice cream, facts about its consumption across the world, etc. But it seems people want to be entertained more than they want to be educated (according to the findings of this study), and no museum director wants to alienate the whopping 81% of people who expect some sort of social media tie-in to their visitor experience, so how would a physical Makeup Museum strike the perfect balance between fun and education? 

Obviously the answer lies in striving for compromise.  The Makeup Museum would definitely have its fair share of highly Instagrammable spaces.  For me, makeup is mostly about having fun and playing with color, so it would almost feel like a crime not to have some kind of crazy colorful installation, if not several, that serves as the perfect selfie backdrop.  Who wouldn't want to take a dive into a pool full of soft, spongey, brightly hued Beauty Blenders?  Or capture the perfect picturesque view atop a gigantic lipstick tower?  As the study pointed out, the vast majority of museum-goers are expecting an opportunity to show off their snaps.  The Cut article highlights several exhibition goers who had actually strategized how they were going to take photos:  "Why else would you come [if not to take photos]? We’re going to have to go through it first and then go again, so I know what I need to take pictures of."  Another remarks, "I kind of did some research of what pieces will be shown at the gallery. I brought my Insta360 camera and two iPhones to shoot as much as I can, since I heard there was a time limit for each piece. Specially the Infinity mirror room and polka-dotted environment were the perfect two pieces to do a 360."  At this level of photography planning on the part of visitors, it's important not to disappoint them. 

At the same time, however, it's equally important to make sure people who want to be educated and who maybe just want to take everything in don't get overwhelmed with crazy, over-the-top, made for Instagram exhibitions and spaces. There would be a few spaces and installations available for those who want the full Instagram documentation, or if the space the Museum occupied really didn't allow for that, I could at least offer a guide to the most Instagrammable spots in the Museum.  Smithsonian Magazine highlights how some museums have been rearranging a few of their galleries to make them more selfie-friendly.  "The Getty Museum in Los Angeles rearranged mirrors in its decorative arts gallery to make mirror selfies easier, while San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art added terraces designed as selfie spots. On its website, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama describes its summer art series as 'Instagram gold' and offers an online slideshow of the top places in the museum to take a selfie."  But this would definitely not be the focus of the Museum, as my primary aim in founding it was for people to learn something about the history of makeup and appreciate the artistry that goes into the packaging.  Especially since, despite the hordes of visitors who are chasing the perfect shot, there are still those who want to simply experience the art and not worry about documenting it.  About her plans for visiting Infinity Mirrors, another museum-goer tells The Cut, "You’re going to miss the whole thing if you take a video! I’ll probably take one or two pics, but I’ll probably try to just take it all in, because we’re only in there for a limited amount of time. I don’t really want to take a photo, I kind of want to just chill."  This is largely my approach as a museum visitor and basically every other outing.  There's a reason you hardly ever see food photos on my IG, as I prefer to eat my food than take pictures of it.  Same with concerts and other shows - as much as I'd like to get the perfect photo, I feel as though the stress of it completely negates my enjoyment of the event.  My goal is to have the Makeup Museum be a place for both people like me as well as those who prefer spectacle over substance, a positive experience for everyone.  As professional Instagrammer (yes, it can be a job) Patrick Janelle concludes in the Smithsonian article, "Ultimately what we want are really wonderful experiences...and sure we want to be able to document them on social media, but we also crave things that are just really wonderful and special in real life.” 

What do you think?  And what would be the ultimate Instagram bait for a makeup museum?

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MM Musings, vol 25: unsolicited donations

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum. These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning. I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

https://www.someecards.com/I came across this article detailing an example of an unsolicited museum donation, and it got me thinking about how this would apply to the Makeup Museum. Let's explore the pros and cons of such donations for a cosmetics museum, shall we? 

In the 9 years I've been running the Museum, it has received a handful of amazing, completely unsolicited donations, two of which I haven't even posted about because they were so huge and I'm still in the process of adding them to the inventory and photographing everything.  Some very kind people bestowed hard to find or vintage items in great condition simply because they were going to throw them out, but instead they took the time to do a little research and discovered the Museum might be a good place for these items instead of the trash.  I must say I've had good luck so far with unsolicited donations - no one has sent me beauty items that are in such poor condition that they really do belong in the garbage.  (No one has even requested that I reimburse them for postage, which blows my mind!  I've offered, but they all turned me down.)  Even though I usually have no idea what I'm getting when people offer to send me things - very few take photos and just offer a brief description - I have no problem digging through the items once they arrive and throwing them out if they really are trash.  And as I'm always trying to grow the Museum's collection, right now I have a favorable opinion of such donations.  It's not often you can get quality items for free, so these unsolicited donations essentially mean collection growth without spending a dime of my own money.  Indeed, several prominent museums have had help in growing their collections via unsolicited donations as well. As the director of the institutional history division at the Smithsonian remarked in this article, "We built our collection with amateur collectors." 

Another pro of an unsolicited donation is that even if I can't use it for the collection, it at least provides research and/or blog post fodder.  I like to think of donations as opportunities for other aspects of museum expansion, as sometimes these items can lead me to look into vintage brands or trends I hadn't explored before, or even exhibition concepts.  For example, the Stila memorabilia donations I received sparked the idea of doing a whole exhibition on Stila girl illustrations.  (Still working on it, obviously!)

Finally, for established organizations unsolicited donations can also lead to good press and increased visitor engagement.  This article in Nonprofit Quarterly discusses an unsolicited donation that a museum could have used as PR opportunity and a way to interact with more visitors (although I do understand why the museum didn't follow through with it).  While right now the Makeup Museum doesn't have any real PR to speak of,  if it was an actual museum I'd absolutely pass along unsolicited donations to my PR team and education/engagement staff and see if they could do anything with them.

Now for the not-so-good aspects of unsolicited donations.  Most museums have policies in place clearly stating that they cannot accept unsolicited donations that are left at the doorstep or sent through the mail, and for several good reasons.  First, and probably most important, unsolicited donations can present a host of legal problems.  State laws regarding abandoned property vary, so museums have to determine whether they can legally own donations that were left or sent anonymously. Not only that, while the donation is monetarily free, the donor may put burdensome conditions in place, such as having the item on display at all times.  This makes the legal aspects of the deed of gift more complicated, and the conditions themselves may be more trouble than the donation is worth.  Plus, some pieces have questionable provenance, especially those where the donor refuses to say how they acquired the item or even give their name - no museum wants stolen or fake works in their collections because, again, this could lead to an epic litigation nightmare.

Second, unsolicited donations require an incredible amount of experience in handling extremely delicate situations.  If a donor is turned down, the result may be a permanently damaged relationship that could affect other donations.  Not only does museum staff want to avoid hurt feelings, as donors can be very attached to an object and may take the rejection personally, but the donor may have something else of value that they are now not willing to part with.  As this Wall Street Journal article explains, "Responding to inquiries for donations requires considerable tact, if for no other reason than a collector offering one unwanted object may have one or more others in which the museum would be far more interested...museum officials attempt to learn something about the person making the offer, because they don't want to close the door on a relationship that might yield other benefits."    

Third, unsolicited donations can be logistically difficult for a small museum that doesn't necessarily have the resources to sift through everything that gets left outside their door or in their mail.  Even if the item proves worthy of the museum's collection, the accessioning process takes a considerable amount of time.  Additionally, the museum may not have the storage space or ability to conserve the items. While mostly applauding the unsolicited donation of goldfish to a museum's pond (literally someone just smuggled a bunch of fish onto museum property and dumped them into the pond without consulting any staff), the Nonprofit Quarterly article notes that the fish ended up dead since the pond wasn't the right environment for them.  If a museum can't properly care for a donation for whatever reason, it actually does more harm than good.

Finally, the museum's focus is also a reason that unsolicited donations are tricky to handle.  In the case of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, donated animal carcasses to be taxidermied or otherwise preserved by the museum present a safety hazard if the critters succumbed to rabies or carried dangerous parasites.  On a less deadly side, I'd imagine a fashion museum would have to take special care in ensuring the donated garments are free of moths and other insects, lest they spread to the rest of the museum's collection and destroy it. 

In light of all these challenges, many museums have very clear policies in place that help protect them against the potential pitfalls that unsolicited donations present.  As for the Makeup Museum, right now I don't think I really need an official policy, since 1. it's not like I'm getting bombarded with donations so I can handle the amount; 2.  legally I can't get into trouble for accepting items or throwing them out since the Museum isn't an actual institution - it's really a situation of one person gifting items to another.  (At least, I don't think I can be sued or anything like that...any lawyers want to weigh in?)

However, should the Makeup Museum ever become a real organization, it would investigate unsolicited donations on a case-by-case basis and maintain a public policy that all staff is well-versed in.  I'd definitely require a form of some kind to be filled out online and have hard copies available in the case of in-person drop-offs.  I'd also follow the standard guideline that most museums have posted - I might even use this exact language from the Chicago History Museum and the International Spy Museum cobbled together, since it's perfect (why reinvent the wheel?):  "The Museum does not accept donations through the mail or in person unless prior arrangements have been made with the appropriate curatorial or collection staff member. All unsolicited donations sent via the mail will be returned to sender.  The Museum reserves the right to dispose of unsolicited items."  Storage space shouldn't be that much of an issue since makeup items are generally small.  Currently I'm running out of room, but that's only because I'm trying to keep the collection in my home - if I had a large dedicated space, it wouldn't pose too much of a problem (unless the donation was something like salon furniture or oversize props...still, if Paul & Joe wanted to donate those giant cat lipsticks they used for their events, I'd take them in a heartbeat, lack of space be damned).  As for health hazards, I can see that used makeup is kind of gross, but most likely it doesn't pose a threat as the items can be somewhat sanitized and no one would actually be using them - they're just being displayed.  The only things you'd have to be really careful with are hair-related items, i.e., I'd think twice about accepting a used vintage hairbrush or other accessories, as an outbreak of lice is not desirable.

There are many potential issues with unsolicited donations, but I believe that if a museum sticks to their policy and ensures their staff understands it, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.  As Jody Ochoa, Director of the Idaho State Historical Museum emphasizes, "If we don't know anything about an item, how can we take it? Having a good solid policy is really key, and it protects everyone, including the volunteers."  My current job also forces me to handle sensitive situations on occasion, so I think I'd be equipped to gently and tactfully negotiate or turn down a donation - hopefully there wouldn't be any burning of bridges with donors for me.

What do you think?


MM Musings, vol. 24: all the bells and whistles

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum. These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning. I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Yoga at the Brooklyn MuseumI forget how I came across this Observer article, but it was a rather eye-opening piece on how museums are upping their game in terms of what they offer besides art.  And it got me thinking about what, if any, over-the-top amenities and programs the Makeup Museum would offer if it occupied a physical space.  Let's explore that, shall we?

The article discusses the rise of extra offerings for visitors that goes well beyond the scope of the museum's mission, including fitness and yoga classes (the latter is a huge trend, apparently), world-class restaurants and programs for specific populations.  The goal of all these amenities, obviously, is to attract more visitors overall and turn regular visitors into donors.  "All over the country, museums have been looking to change their image from boxy buildings that just store and exhibit cultural objects to community gathering spaces with activities for preschoolers, teens, single adults, families, the elderly and probably some other demographics...It is the hope on the part of museums that this effort to make their institutions gathering spots for their communities and to view the population as customers whose needs are to be met will turn casual visitors into members, some of whom may become donors and board members."  While I haven't found any official studies on whether these sorts of things actually increase the number of visitors and donations, they comprise an interesting marketing tactic worth looking into.  However, I must point out that some of the "extras" the article highlights, such as community outreach programs, shouldn't be viewed as additional amenities, they should just be part of regular programming and services.  I don't think electric carts for elderly visitors should be lumped in with, say, having a Michelin-starred restaurant. 

Anyway, I can envision the Makeup Museum adopting similar programs to the ones mentioned.  I had always planned on an excellent gift shop and cafe, not to mention that the museum building would be beautifully designed and have amazing signage/collateral (e.g. museum maps, exhibition labels, etc.).  But reading the Observer piece makes me think that perhaps the Museum could offer a fitness or yoga class - maybe have one of those so-called "athleisure" makeup brands sponsor it and offer free product samples to people taking the class.  Other programs might be a decorate your own compact night or an "apothecary" workshop on how to make natural pigments and serums (similar to this setup). For kids, we could have finger painting classes using old makeup - lord knows I have a ton of stuff I don't use anymore but would still be safe to use for artistic purposes.  I think any cosmetics museum-goers might want to have these sorts of things available to them in addition to the standard tours and exhibitions.  As the article notes, “Our expectations of going to museums increasingly are like our expectations when going into a Starbucks: We want things to be tailored to our individual likes and interests."

On the other hand, though, I do see these sorts of extra programs and services being problematic, particularly for a cosmetics museum.  As the article points out, one issue is the possibility of objects getting damaged or destroyed.  This little nugget was truly horrifying:  "Marcy Goodman, a museum-planning consultant in La Crescenta, Calif., who developed the plans for the Bruce Museum’s expansion, said parties should not take place in the actual galleries. 'Some years back, an art museum in Oregon hosted an all-you-can-drink event in a gallery where, among other things, some people ended up having sex on a Henry Moore sculpture,' she told the Observer."  Meanwhile, New York Magazine asks, "How long until someone breaks a priceless piece of art during the Met Museum workout?"  Museums already have to deal with careless people breaking things, why invite even more of it if it's not crucial to the mission? 

Secondly, these sorts of programs might distract from a museum's true purpose.   Do you want visitors to actually, you know, pay attention to the displays or visit simply for the frills?  It's a really tough call since museums are dependent on visitors - this is a key benchmark for receiving funding and sponsorships - but you don't want to turn a museum into something it's not.  Plus, as we learned with exhibition display, one has to be very careful in making sure a museum devoted to cosmetics doesn't morph into a store.  I don't think I'd sell makeup in any capacity at the Museum, not even in the gift shop.  It's a museum, not Sephora!  (One caveat:  I think the recently discussed Museum of Beni and its accompanying store is an exception to selling makeup in a museum setting.)  And sponsorship by makeup companies for special workshops and classes is problematic, since you want people to have learned something about makeup history, not be exposed to what amounts to glorified advertising.  Yes, people's expectations of museums are more on par with those they have for businesses like Starbucks, but frankly, museums aren't businesses.  Even if they partner with and receive funding from businesses, museums need to stay firmly on the nonprofit side.  That would be particularly difficult to do with a cosmetics museum - the kind of showiness and gimmicks you'd see in retail needs to be kept at bay lest you "sell out" and lose sight of the museum's true mission.

Finally, and I think this is the core issue for me, is that I would probably not engage in all the extras and simply put all funding into making the Makeup Museum as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.  While the some of the amenities mentioned in the article are nice, they're not necessarily critical to people's understanding of the art.  And let's face it, funding for museums is so scarce, there's no way I'd be able to afford most of the things I'd love to have, like fancy architecture and an internationally-renowned cafe.  Even if I did have this sort of money, I think I'd spend it on, say, making the museum's resources - everything from pamphlets to audio guides - available in just about every language.  Instead of yoga classes, the Museum would offer state-of-the-art touch-tour and 3D printing technology so that blind visitors can have a richer experience.  Funding that would pay the salary of a world-class chef for the cafe would instead go to ensuring the Museum remains free.  And I maintain that kids' programming is a necessity, but the Museum could go a little further and have programs just for special-needs kids (like this.)  This ties back into what I noted earlier:  some of the programs the article talks about should not be perceived as extra.  In addition to my other ideas, I'd be all over those community outreach programs!  The bottom line is that I'd definitely focus less on the frills and more on accessibility, inclusiveness and civic engagement.  Specifically what that would consist of will be explored in later installments of MM Musings. ;)

Thoughts?  Would you like to see crazy, over-the-top amenities at a makeup museum? 

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MM Musings, vol. 23 : building a permanent collection

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

No planIt occurred to me that I spend so much time fantasizing about a Makeup Museum that I never really thought about what would actually go in it if it occupied a real space.  I mean, I have a vague idea, but no formal plan.  Truthfully, up to this point I had envisioned having endless funds to buy thousands of lovely objects and I'd just stick 'em in the display cases as I pleased.  However, it was brought to my attention that museums have something known as a collections plan, which outlines priorities for the current collection as well as planning for future collection growth.  Apparently you can't just set up a physical space and go plopping random objects down willy-nilly, you need to pin down what the most important things are for the collection for now and in the future.  This is especially important when, like nearly all museums, you're dealing with very limited resources, both financial and space-wise.  So with that in mind, I thought I'd put my totally unrealistic daydreams aside for a minute and try to narrow down what would be the most important things to have in the Makeup Museum if it occupied a real space.

Before I can do that though, what exactly is a collections plan?  I looked for examples and immediately got overwhelmed - many museums' collections plans are quite in-depth and are for museums that already exist.  But then I found this slideshow from the Peabody Museum at Harvard that provides a brief, point-by-point summary of a collections plan, so I will be using it as my guide in this post.  The most basic topics to address in a collections plan are as follows:

  • Defines what the museum should and should not collect
  • Set priorities for use of limited resources
  • Historic and contemporary collections composition
  • Strengths, weaknesses, gaps & goals
  • Short term (current) needs and long term (future) needs

With that, coming up with a minimal collections plan seemed a bit more manageable.  Hopefully I won't bore you, dear readers (all 2 of you), by doing it this way, but I'm going to go through one at a time.

1.  Define what the museum should and shouldn't collect. 

Well, this shouldn't be too hard.  Basically the Makeup Museum would be open to any cosmetic-related objects, including but not limited to color cosmetics, nail products, skincare, and related advertising and devices (love to get my hands on one of these Max Factor "beauty calibrators"!)  The only things I can't imagine it collecting would be perfumes and items that lean more towards health (i.e. toothbrushes, deodorants, etc.), as I see these as separate areas from color cosmetics and skincare.

2.  Set priorities for use of limited resources. 

Now here comes the hard part.  Obviously I had always thought the Makeup Museum would be comprehensive, and when I say "comprehensive" what I actually mean is having damn near every cosmetic object from the beginning of time housed under one roof over thousands of square feet - the museum would practically be its own city.  There would be entire wings devoted to just, say, artist collaborations or men's grooming.  *record scratch*  Back to reality, which demands that I trim down these rather grandiose plans.  After looking at the Museum's current mission statement, I think my priorities for a permanent collection would be:

- Forming a timeline of the history of cosmetics via collecting objects from different eras - everything from ancient to contemporary times would be represented, with an emphasis on the 20th century.  Ideally I'd like to have displays by decade starting with the late 1800s through today.  Priority would be given to those objects that show innovation in technology and design (e.g., the first mascara sold in a tube rather than cake form).  Priority would also be given to more recognizable brands as well as items that are the most representative of the particular time.  For example, since face powder was the most commonly worn beauty item in the early 1900s, I want to have a nice selection of those for the 1900-1920 decades.  And if there's an eye shadow from a little-known brand from the '60s that's available for sale versus, say, a Mary Quant eye shadow crayon set, obviously I'm going to pounce on the Mary Quant because it's a better-known name that will resonate with more people.

- Obtain objects that speak to traditionally underrepresented demographics in the cosmetics industry:  people of color, non-cis-women genders, people over the age of 40.  For this last group let's try to concentrate on things besides anti-aging treatments!

- Focus on contemporary makeup with artist and fashion collaborations.  I'd also like to address the latest trends and cutting-edge technology to show where the cosmetics industry is headed in the future.

3.  Historic and contemporary collections comparison

According to the current inventory (which badly needs to be updated again, sigh), I have much work to do in historic collections.  If I'm ever going to provide even a brief snapshot of makeup throughout the ages, I better have more than only 6% (!!!) of the collection that's from the 20th century.  By my count, out of 780 objects, I have only 32 that represent anything earlier than 1990, and only a smattering of things from the '90s and early '00s.  Oof.

4.  Strengths, weaknesses, gaps & goals

Obviously the strengths of the current collection would be contemporary makeup, especially artist and fashion collaborations, while the weaknesses/gaps would be the overall lack of objects from before the 21st century as well as a focus on American brands.  I do always intend on expanding to include non-U.S. based brands but they can be rather tricky to get a hold of.  The goal would ostensibly be to collect more items from the 20th century and prior.

5.  Short term (current) needs and long term (future) needs

The Makeup Museum's short-term needs are pretty basic - obtain items that would provide a broad history of makeup.  Specifically, it would be ideal to get at least 3 objects and two ads from each decade from the 1890s to now.  Future needs are more complicated, as the industry moves so quickly it's difficult to assess what the Museum would require down the line.  I'm assuming I'd need to plan for any sort of anniversaries (brands, a particular product, etc.) as well as special exhibitions on certain topics.  I think I'd also have my sights set on really big ticket, rare objects - besides very pricey ancient artifacts and items from the Renaissance through the 18th century, I think some luxury items, like the sort we saw in the Ultra Vanities exhibition, would greatly enhance the collection and make for a world-class museum.

So, does this sound like a good plan to start with?  If you were a visitor, what would you want to see in a makeup museum's permanent collection?

 


MM Musings, vol. 22: a different kind of beauty school

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Some ecardToday's installment of MM Musings is not actually about museums. (I know, I know - I should stick to the general purpose of this series.  But this is a cool topic, I promise.)  Instead, I want to talk about where beauty history and culture belongs in academia. I came across this post at one of my favorite fashion blogs, Worn Through, and it got my brain percolating on a beauty-focused academic curriculum.  Obviously this is a challenge that fashion historians are still grappling with, so it will be equally tricky determining where beauty culture should go if courses in this area were offered.  And I really hope they are some day, with me as the fearless founder and pioneer in the field. 

First we need to accept the premise that beauty culture and history are valid areas of study.  Why?  Any form of self-adornment, from tribal body piercings to lip gloss, speaks volumes about a particular culture - it's a unique window into the artistic, commercial, and social values of any group of people. Furthermore, I've already argued that some cosmetic items and beauty practices are a form of art and therefore belong in a museum, so it follows that they should be accepted as legitimate fields of study. I realize that's a rather simplistic way of saying beauty culture is important enough to warrant serious academic attention, but that's not what I wanted to tackle today.  I want to focus on the admittedly more fun notion of actually being able to study and research all topics pertaining to beauty in a formal program.  Many individuals have done scholarly work on beauty topics, but there is no one dedicated academic curriculum for them.

So if we accept the argument that beauty culture and history should be taught, that brings us to the main question:  where does it belong?  There are several possibilities.  My first inclination is to assign topics pertaining to beauty and cosmetics to fashion history curricula.  This would be a natural fit given the close relationship between beauty and fashion.  However, since fashion studies itself is still struggling to figure out its proper place within academia, this may be problematic.  The short (or long) answer is that like fashion studies, beauty culture and history encompass many disciplines.  Therefore, just like fashion studies, they can find a home in a variety of fields.  

Case in point: think of all the people who write about beauty and organize beauty-related exhibitions.  They run the gamut from fashion curators and historians to feminist authors, from economists and business scholars to art historians and makeup artists.  There are also collectors and other folks with a general interest in cosmetics.  Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the study of beauty culture and history, it would fit in a variety of academic areas.  The most obvious ones in my eyes are art history, general history, gender and women's studies, cultural studies, material culture, and anthropology.  These would be ideal areas to host an individual program or track focused solely on beauty culture and history - sort of the way the Courtauld Institute in London has art history undergraduate and MA degrees with a specific "history of dress" track.  Additionally, students in other fields could take individual courses in beauty culture to help round out their studies.  For example, an art history major who wasn't signed up for the entire beauty culture track could take just one course in how ideal beauty is portrayed in art, from ancient Egyptian portraits of Nefertiti to Renaissance paintings to contemporary works. Design students could take a course in the history of cosmetics packaging design, and marketing majors could take a course examining the history of beauty advertising and where it's headed in the future.  All of these classes would fall under the general umbrella of the beauty culture and history program, so students could be enrolled for that or take selected courses pertinent to their major.

What do you think?  Would you attend a class or a whole program in beauty culture and history?  I would, but I'm more interested in teaching...I have so many ideas for courses and could easily develop a whole curriculum. ;)

(image from someecards.com)

 


MM Musings, vol. 21: Quantity vs. Quality

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Someecard-quantityI was reading this post over at the Center for the Future of Museums, which discusses how museums, history ones in particular, are prone to perceiving the quantity of items in their collections as more important than the quality or significance of those items. "Museums too often equate size with quality...we need to stop treating artifacts the same – too many museums pretend that all their collections are equally valuable and they budget the same amount for care across the board instead of focusing their resources on the pieces that best support their mission."  The post also describes what's known as "lazy artifacts", i.e. objects that have been accumulated but are never used in research, exhibitions or other programming - they just sit in storage.

Obviously this got me thinking about the current Makeup Museum collection.  More specifically, I wondered whether the collection suffers from the same affliction as most history museums: having too many objects that serve no discernible purpose.  To put it another way, am I curating wrong??  I touched on this previously in my 2012 MM Musings post on acquisitions, in which I described how I decide what to purchase for the Museum.  I think that criteria still stands for the most part.  The only thing I'm uncertain about is the "filler" items I discussed.  Sometimes an object isn't so great on its own, but would prove to be useful in an exhibition on a particular theme.  But I still strongly feel as though not every item has to be a showstopper. 

So let's investigate why that is.  Does sheer quantity outweigh content?  Do I really need all or most of the items in a particular makeup collection or an object from every single artist collaboration or should I be paring down, spending the same amount I would for several easily available objects on a single rare object?  I feel as though I'm actually siding with history museums, misguided though that may be.  Right now, quality is important to me but not as much as quantity for several reasons.  First, makeup items are small.  If you display just a handful of makeup objects all grouped around the same theme, it's not going to look very impressive.  I know when putting my exhibitions together I always like to have two items per shelf or an item and an ad or some other visual to go with the object.  A compact, detailed though it may be, lacks the impact of a big item like a large painting, sculpture, piece of furniture, clothing, etc.  Thus, more is better from a visual standpoint.  Along those lines, if the Museum does eventually get a physical space, I'd want to have tons of objects on permanent display divided into different categories - lots of things released by couture houses, artist collaborations, etc. will be needed to adequately fill said space.  I can completely understand why history museums feel the urge to accumulate more objects, as seeing a big number is really gratifying to both collectors and visitors alike.  The Museum currently has over 700 objects and I can't wait to hit the 1,000 mark, which sounds insane as I'm typing it, but I think people would want to see thousands of objects.  Just imagine being in a space that boasts over 1,000 beauty items.

Second, the Makeup Museum seeks to cover a broad area.  I want the museum to encompass just about anything related to makeup and beauty (save for perfume) and from all time periods.  When I began this little adventure most of the focus was on contemporary objects that are deemed "too pretty to use" and artist collaborations, but over the years my goals have shifted slightly in that my ideal makeup museum now would also have a healthy vintage collection and nearly anything else makeup-themed, so acquiring more objects to ensure all areas are represented is definitely in keeping with the current mission.  Finally, while I only have a few truly rare and valuable pieces, I don't think less expensive objects are necessarily of less quality or interest.  I can justify everything on the Museum's inventory (which badly needs to be updated, I know).  I have to consider getting a good bang for my buck, as it were. Right now I can't justify spending $500 on a single item when I could buy many more collectibles that are of the same quality (or at least near it) with the same amount of money.

After this brief exploration of the Makeup Museum's current collection practices, I think I'm just going to stay the course.  Eventually I think I will reduce what I buy and hone in on more rare, expensive pieces, but for right now I'm still in the collection-building phase, especially for vintage items, so quantity is a priority. 

TL;DR: Size matters. 

What do you think?  

 


MM Musings, vol. 20: Makeup skills

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Some e-cardA while back the excellent fashion blog Worn Through had a post questioning whether fashion curators needed to also be designers, or at the very least, know how to sew.  It got me thinking whether the same conundrum would face a beauty curator, i.e., does one need to be a professional makeup artist to oversee a beauty museum? 

My gut reaction, naturally, is no. The curators at most art museums are not artists themselves.  And as Jill points out in her Worn Through post, a background in art history and museum studies and/or cultural studies is more crucial for fashion historians and curators than being able to construct a garment.  Seeing as how I have degrees in art history and cultural studies, plus work experience at several museums, I think I'm very qualified to be a beauty curator.  Moreover, I'd argue that just because one is a professional makeup artist doesn't necessarily mean they're any more knowledgeable than I am about beauty history.

However, besides the fact that in recent years there's been a growing interest in the idea of the artist as curator, it is undeniable that a professional makeup artist would possess an abundance of knowledge that would prove useful in a museum or academic environment.  An artist working at a department store counter, for example, understands the cosmetic needs of the average woman, which would be a valuable topic to contribute towards a book or exhibition on contemporary culture.  Meanwhile, celebrity makeup artists and beauty directors for fashion houses offer a unique perspective on the relationship between fashion and makeup.  They themselves are setting the trends - in effect, helping to create beauty history.  Then there are the artists who do it all, from showing non-makeup pros how to easily achieve a certain look to providing their services for magazine photo shoots and runway shows.  Case in point:  Lisa Eldridge, a makeup artist whose enormously popular YouTube videos shot her to fame, is releasing a beauty history book this fall entitled Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup.  As Alex at I Heart Beauty says, "if anyone's qualified to tell the story of makeup it's Lisa Eldridge."

So where does that leave us?  While I believe professional makeup artists could also make good beauty historians or curators, I still don't think being a pro is an absolute necessity.  If you look the beauty history books that I've reviewed or recommended, many of them are not authored by pro makeup artists.  It's a mixed bunch of historians, independent authors and collectors.  I was also thinking of other fashion curatorial and history luminaries - do you think Valerie Steele or Tim Gunn could make a garment?  Highly doubtful.  While my application skills are nowhere near the level of a professional's (I still can't do winged eyeliner to save my life), I at least know which colors and looks are flattering on me, and I continue to experiment with the latest products and techniques.  And given my art history background, I can also both appreciate and analyze the work of pros that I see in magazines and runway shows and on blogs.  Combined with my passion for art, design, history and fashion in general, I think this is more than enough to run a beauty museum.

Having said all that, I do think it's necessary to have some knowledge of basic application and an interest in fashion.  Makeup doesn't exist in a vacuum, and I think it may be difficult to curate a beauty museum without having at least some sense of which product goes where on one's face, how makeup artists use these products to create various looks, and a cursory knowledge of high-end fashion brands.  How else would you come up with exhibition themes or know what's worth purchasing for the museum's collection?  Additionally, it wouldn't hurt to familiarize yourself with vintage cosmetics objects in order to gain a better understanding of product design and how it's evolved over the years, not to mention the cultural history these objects reflect.

What do you think?  Do you think would-be makeup museum curators need to go to beauty school or are the other skills and knowledge I've mentioned sufficient?


MM Musings, vol. 19: Crowdfunding

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Kickstarter-someecardsThe idea of fundraising makes me very uncomfortable, so much so that I've always avoided the topic.  However, I came across this article over at Gawker about sad Kickstarter projects that received zero money and decided this would be a good time to address fundraising; specifically, a new way of raising money known as crowdfunding.   The article captures why I'm not doing anything of this sort at the moment, so I thought today I'd explore the idea of crowdfunding for museums and why I don't want to engage in it for the Makeup Museum.

Museums can certainly benefit by using crowdfunding, especially since, as this post over the Center for the Future of Museums blog points out, Kickstarter and the like reduce funders' risk (you only pay what you pledged if the full goal is reached) and also have the ability to go viral via social media, something that doesn't happen with the more traditional fundraising methods.  The social media aspect also helps target the all-important youth demographic.

Indeed, some campaigns are wildly successful, like the one for the Tesla Museum run by The Oatmeal artist Matt Inman.* Smaller projects exceed funding goals as well, like the Chicago Design Museum, the Hollywood Science Fiction Museum or the Museum of Food and Drink.  Like the Makeup Museum, these were the long-term projects of a few dedicated people that were finally able to have a permanent physical space thanks to Kickstarter.  On an even smaller scale money-wise, various exhibitions hosted by existing museums, on subjects ranging from burlesque costumes to the work of cartoonist Al Jaffee and costing just a few thousand dollars, regularly meet their fundraising goals. This isn't surprising, as the founders of Kickstarter publicly announced in 2013 that they are looking to help fund museum exhibitions and other projects.  The funds cannot be used for operational costs, but go towards "specific programming or ventures".  

So it would seem as long as you aim low and keep the total goal below $20,000 (unlike these unsuccessful campaigns - they went big and failed), your museum, or at least an exhibition, would have a good shot at getting funded.  However, there's really no predicting what will get the cash rolling in.  Even smaller projects that ask for $20,000 and under - and that also seem pretty cool to me - got next to nothing.  Why do people not want to fund toy museums?   Or an exhibition on queer fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology?  The results are even more dismal at Indiegogo - my museum search there yielded literally hundreds of museums and exhibitions that didn't earn a single cent.  (Note: This is partially due to Kickstarter completely dominating its crowdsourcing platform competition.)  

Additionally, the overall rates are not great either.  In 2012 only 50% of crowdfunding campaigns got funded.  On the Kickstarter stats page, as of today the success rate for the categories of design and art were 36% and 45%, respectively, with fashion coming in at the second lowest of all categories (27%).  I'm guessing the Makeup Museum would fit somewhere in one of those three, and those are even less than the 2012 global average of 50%.  I'm a glass half-empty kind of person so I'm not willing to do the amount of work required to develop and launch a campaign - the odds of my museum getting funded would have to be drastically higher.  Moreover, the most successful campaigns are ones that are backed by a massive social media presence, something the Museum sorely lacks.  I hate Facebook, I only have a handful of followers on Twitter and Pinterest, and only just yesterday did I reach an average of 100 page views.  (Sometimes blogging is a lot like high school, i.e. a popularity contest, something I never win.)  And unlike most beauty bloggers, I have zero connections to the beauty industry.  If an influential beauty blogger who is regularly in touch with PR reps from a big cosmetics company decided to start a Kickstarter campaign for a makeup museum, they'd have no trouble at all - I could absolutely see L'Oreal or Estée Lauder doling out the cash pretty easily.  No one, especially a huge company, is going to want to back something that doesn't have a significant following on social media.

Then there's the matter of asking friends, family and strangers for money via social media, an idea that makes me very uneasy, especially when it comes to the first two categories of people (see the some e-card above).  I would never ask them to contribute to the museum face-to-face, so why would a crowdfunding campaign be acceptable?   I'd be fine applying for a grant from a foundation because dispensing funds is what a foundation does, but crowdfunding just seems like standing there with my virtual hand out begging for money.

Awkward

Finally, the emotional risk is too great.  I wouldn't lose anything financially, but I would be so crushed at not reaching even a small goal.  The only thing I'd even consider using Kickstarter for would be my oft-mentioned coffee table book that I never get around to working on (or my '90s beauty book).  That seems like a worthwhile, tangible item that people may be willing to pay for and it's small enough that it could be feasible, but I'd be so sad if people didn't want to pay even for a book.  Anyway, the museum is a reflection of me and I absolutely would take it personally that the campaign failed. Unsuccessful blogging is one thing - I enjoy blogging for its own sake so a lack of readers and page views doesn't bother me that much - but a failed crowdfunding campaign would really sting. 

Speaking of which, there's the matter of the logistics of developing a good campaign that would make this seem like a legitimate museum and not just a pet project that some crazy lady with a lot of makeup dreamed up.  I know if I don't do a perfectly on-point campaign, there's no way people are going to give their hard-earned dollars for something they perceive as another vanity project.  With no background in fundraising and no real creative skills, I couldn't fathom designing an appealing campaign that people would see as worthwhile.  Also, not only would I be sad and embarrassed, I'd also be enraged people were willing to pay $55,000 for some guy to make potato salad while my idea went nowhere.**  A beauty museum may not be brilliant but it's better than potato salad!   Overall I'm already disappointed and frustrated about the direction my "career" took, so I simply cannot tolerate another failure involving something else I hold so close to me. 

There is another crowdfunding platform that deviates slightly from the Kickstarter/Indiegogo models, but I don't want to use that either.  Patreon is a way for people to pay on an per-project basis, i.e. you can "commission" an artist to create something, be it a song, a painting, or a movie.  But many bloggers use it as a way offset some of the costs that come with providing quality content, or to get paid for blogging in the hopes of transitioning into their projects full-time.  One Tumblr I follow, Medieval POC, uses Patreon to help pay for costs such as academic database membership fees as well as projects like a print shop and "theme weeks", i.e. posts on a specific topic. 

Plus, Patreon doesn't seem quite as obligatory as a typical crowdfunding campaign.  People can still access any content on your website for free, and you can just sneak up a donation link somewhere on your site - no fancy campaign and networking required (although I guess if you want more people to give you'd have to make some kind of announcement).  They only donate if they choose and to whatever project they want.  I imagine that if I implemented it for the Makeup Museum, I'd have an option for someone to donate every time I post an exhibition.  It would be sort of like online "suggested donation" box, something that I'm not totally averse to having if the museum occupied a physical space.  Or I could use it for membership fees like the $895 annual cost for access to Women's Wear Daily and its archives.  WWD is a tremendously valuable resource that I could use when writing cosmetics history posts.

However (you knew there was a "however" coming), as with Kickstarter, Patreon isn't something I feel comfortable doing.  I already put my exhibitions up completely for free, so why would I start asking for money now?  If I lost my job and wanted to keep the blog going maybe then I'd consider it, but given that my exhibitions are in my house at the moment it would probably come off as "buy expensive makeup for me so I can take pictures of it and put it on a shelf in my bedroom." 

Nope octopus

The TL;DR version:  I don't have the time, connections or social media presence to run a crowdfunding campaign right now and the success rate isn't high enough to be worth the crushing sadness I'll experience if my project isn't funded.  Thus I am not attempting it.

What do you think of crowdfunding?  What projects have you given to, if any?  And just out of curiosity, would you contribute to a Makeup Museum fund or towards a book on contemporary cosmetics?

 

*I'm still bitter that with a single Tweet and one phone call, Inman was handed a check for $1 million by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk in addition to the $1.3 million his project had already earned through Indiegogo.  I  guarantee there's no way the CEO of Sephora or L'Oreal would throw that kind of cash at me for my museum.

**I know I've mentioned it before and that the project was originally conceived as a silly prank, but it really burns my toast nevertheless.


MM Musings, vol. 18: interview with an exhibition designer!

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Ashley-B.Since my last MM Musings post on what a permanent collection display might look like in an actual beauty museum, I've been thinking about ideas for special exhibitions.  But I kept getting overwhelmed with the details of a specific exhibition's themes.  After a while I realized my usual musings style wasn't going to work for a post on special exhibitions, so I changed tactics to bring you something much more interesting and enlightening than my usual reflections:  an interview with Ashley Boycher, Associate Exhibition Designer at the Walters Art Museum here in Baltimore.  Yes, I got to chat (email) with a real-life exhibition designer at one of the top museums in the country!  Enjoy.

MM:  What is the basic process of exhibition design?  Does the curator tell you which pieces they want and you go from there?  Who else do you work with besides the curator?

AB: Although sometimes exhibition ideas come from the public, certain museum trends, conservators, and/or museum educators, the seed of an exhibition is almost always planted by the curator, and the curator is academically responsible for the exhibition throughout the process. Once the seed is planted, the curator writes an exhibition narrative and begins to make a list of objects that s/he believes will best illustrate that narrative. Then there are lost of talks with conservators about which of the objects are in good enough shape and/or can be made into good enough shape for the exhibition given the timeframe. Also, when applicable, there are talks with registrars, who are responsible for the handling and logistics of moving and storing objects, and other institutions' representatives about the feasibility of bringing objects to our institution for the exhibition from other places. This happens with almost all large scale exhibitions and the negotiations with the other institutions often includes logistics about traveling the exhibitions to those institutions as well. In fact, grant funding is often dependent on the ability to collaborate with other institutions and travel the show domestically and/or internationally. Once many of these things are worked out, the curator and I begin conversations.  This is usually about 18 months out from the exhibition opening. We do some preliminary ideation about object groupings and the look and feel of the show. During that time, the curator is also talking in a preliminary way with a museum educator about different didactic and interactive elements that might enhance the exhibition experience. At about a year out, the three of us come together and begin to really hash out the meat of the show. We also bring in representatives from the other museum divisions: IT, marketing, development, security, etc, when we need to collaborate on things like how we will advertise the show and what technology, if any, will benefit the exhibition message, both outwardly and inside the exhibition itself.  All of the details come together in about 8 months, and for the last 4 months of the development process we are in production mode - labels being edited, graphics being printed, cases being built, walls being painted, etc - along with any straggler details that we miss beforehand, which always happens.

MM: Do you do some kind of prototype before the exhibition opens?

AB: It depends. Sometimes we're not exactly sure how a paint color will look in the space, so we'll slap it up on the wall and look at it for  a few days and adjust where necessary. That is, if we have time. Often art is coming out of a space only a week before other art is supposed to go in, which means we don't always have the opportunity to do this. Other prototyping sometimes happens when we are trying out a weird or new display type. And we almost always prototype interactives, both low tech and high tech.

MM:  Do you have experience with designing decorative object-based exhibitions and if so, how does it differ from designing exhibitions for other types of art?

AB:  I've never designed a show that was purely dec arts objects, but they have been a part of shows i've designed. The new installation that opens here in October has lots of dec arts in it.  I would say that in my experience one of the main differences is that many dec arts objects are heartier than other art, in better shape, and often made of less than precious materials, which means that conservation does not always make us put them under a vitrine. In this way they can help to create the look and feel of a space rather than just being purely on display. I suppose that was their original function anyway. :)

MM:  What are some of the latest, cutting-edge developments in exhibition design?

AB:  Well, unfortunately the latest cutting-edge development design aren't really happening at many art museums. Science museums and natural history museums are the ones that are usually on the cutting edge when it comes to design and technology. This summer I visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and one of their exhibitions had this amazing custom theatre system. It was made using custom craft carpentry, crazy projectors, and bit mapping. You can see a cool video about the making of it. 

MM:  What was your favorite exhibition you designed and why?

AB:  That's a really hard question! The reason I got into exhibition design was because I was interested in too many different things to pick one thing to continue studying (I'm also just not that much of an academic eve though I really loved school). Working on exhibitions awards me the opportunity to learn about another fascinating different thing with each new project. So I guess my favorite is always whatever the latest project is. I suppose I have shiny thing syndrome. 

MM:  If money wasn't a factor, what would your “dream” exhibition be?

AB:  When I was in graduate school, one of my big solo projects was an exhibition about the art, science, and history of tattooing throughout time and across the globe. I am fascinated by tattoos because they have so many different facets: cultural heritage, technology, biology, taboo, straight up beautiful artistry, the list goes on and on. I think a well planned and designed exhibition about tattooing could be interesting to just about everyone for one or more of these reasons. I'd love to be on a project like that.

MM:  Do you have any ideas or suggestions regarding exhibitions that would have lots of small objects, i.e. makeup?  I promise I'm not asking you to work for free - I'm just looking for any sort of general advice or tips off the top of your head!

AB:  The hard thing about showing a bunch of small things is that the displays always want to look like retail rather than museum quality. My biggest advice would be to make sure you single out your best pieces. Put them on their own pedestals, maybe give them a bigger brighter pop of color, or a few more inches in height. Just make sure they actually stand out in a way that tells your visitor, "hey, you want to make sure you look at me and only me for a sec." If you want to do a display of a bunch of things together for impact or to get a certain point across, especially if it's several examples of one type of thing, make sure you save your 2nd and 3rd tier objects for those displays.

 

Thank you so much, Ashley, both for the peek into the life of an exhibition designer and for the invaluable advice!!  (And I think we both have "shiny thing syndrome" - more literally for me). 


MM musings, vol. 17: permanent collection design

Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the collecting of cosmetics, along with my vision for a "real", physical Makeup Museum.  These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum was an actual organization, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning.  I also hope that these posts make everyone see that the idea of a museum devoted to cosmetics isn't so crazy after all - it can be done!

Today I'll be discussing what the permanent collection might look like if the Makeup Museum occupied a physical space (special exhibitions will be covered in the next installment of MM Musings.)   Exhibition design is, of course, a behemoth topic and I don't expect to thoroughly describe every aspect of it as it applies to a beauty museum, but I thought I'd at least scratch the surface. 

In looking at various museums and exhibitions online, it occurred to me that it's easier to start with what I don't want rather than what would be ideal.  The following pictures are examples of displays that I personally don't find appropriate for beauty objects.  I'm not slighting the hard work that went into these whatsoever, it's just that they will help me remember specifically what I hope to avoid in setting up a permanent display.

First up is labeling.  I have discovered I'm a little very picky when it comes to communicating the information about each object.  For the first example, while I love how neatly arranged all the objects are in rows in this 2008 robot exhibition, I can't see any labels.  I can only assume they're in at the feet of each robot, but what about the ones on the top shelf?  How is a visitor supposed to know what they're looking at?  Obviously robots but I would want to know the name, year, and any other interesting facts.

Robot-exhibition

Robot-exhibition2
(images from new.pentagram.com)

Even worse would be tons of objects crammed into one case with no labels.  At least the above exhibition was arranged in an orderly fashion.

Crowded-case
(image from whitehotmagazine.com)

I also don't belive that tiny numbers corresponding to the objects really count as labels.  I loathe having to hunt for information.  This labeling system doesn't engage visitors, it just frustrates them (or at least me).  I'm more likely to walk away from a display if I can't readily view the information about each object.  I know it doesn't require a lot of thought to match up the objects to the number.  But it is an extra step, and given that I'm anxious to see as much as possible when I go to a museum, I hate wasting even one precious second having to look up an object I want to know more about.

Safari-Museum-Jewelry-case
(image from photos.hodgman.org)

Perfume-exhibition
(image from fairyfiligree.blogspot.com)

Even if the numbers are a good size, like in this 2012 Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs exhibition, I still don't like not having all the information right near the object.  It needs to be front and center.

Louis-vuitton-marc-jacobs-exhibit
(image from ibtimes.co.uk)

Second, I don't want a repetitive display.  Below is a special exhibition devoted to Marilyn Monroe at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Italy (Monroe was quite a loyal Ferragamo customer).  This is a subject I'm definitely interested in, but I can already feel my eyes glazing over looking at that very long row of vitrines all set up exactly the same.

Marilyn-monroe-exhibition
(image from dazeddigital.com)

Similarly, I like a good collection of (African?) masks as well as anyone, but I find this layout doesn't do them justice.  One after the other against clear glass atop a concrete base strips them of their individuality.

Masks-display
(image from archdaily.com)

Now that I've shown some examples of what I don't want, let's look at some that I could see working for a beauty museum.  I adore the design of Harrod's Perfume Diaries exhibition from 2010 and would love to have something similar as a permanent display.  Everything is arranged chronologically, and the well-lit cases have niches for each item as well as individual labels.  The white curved walls provide a modern, open airiness - something else I don't want is for the Makeup Museum is for visitors to feel like they're in some creepy old weirdo's cramped basement.

Harrods-perfume-diaries
(image from thewomensroom.typepad.com)

Along those lines, I liked how the ads and objects were arranged in this perfume bottle exhibition.  As you know, I frequently include ads in my exhibitions and I think this is a great way to do it.  Again, I thought the crisp white backdrop worked really well - white would be a very effective surrounding for colorful makeup items.

Museum_bellerive
(image from belepok.com)

It's no surprise that the exhibition displays that appeal most to me are for perfumes, since, after all, makeup objects aren't all that far off either in theme or size. 

While this was a shallow dive into the vasts depths of collections display, I think it was very helpful for me to weed through and determine the basic aspects that I would want in permanent displays at the Makeup Museum, which are: 1. clear, easy-to-find labeling for every object; 2. differentiated areas or displays so that the objects' uniqueness can be emphasized; and 3. an open floor plan with lots of light.

Can you envision something similar to the perfume displays shown here for a physical Makeup Museum?  And more generally, do you have any museum display pet peeves?