Another one (or three) that got away
Curator's Corner, 1/5/2013

MM Musings, Vol. 7: Conservation

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!

Hey-girl-conservationConservation is a topic I get asked about frequently.  Whenever anyone hears that I collect makeup, their first question is always, "Won't it go bad?"   I tend not to worry much about preserving the collection right now.  I only take objects out of storage and open the compacts for photography purposes; then, they are immediately closed and returned to their storage space.  Since they are stored in my home I have control over temperature and can easily make sure they're not exposed to water, sunlight or bugs.   (I do worry about fire when I'm not home!) However, conservation would definitely be a significant issue if the Makeup Museum were to occupy a physical space, with the objects on display 24/7. 

The top two would-be challenges, as I see them:

1.  There is very little precedent for the conservation of cosmetics.  Some collections, like that of the Shiseido Museum, contain cosmetics and most likely require full-time conservators, but how would a smaller museum based in the U.S. follow suit?  I think I would have to hire a professional to advise on proper display and storage techniques, as well as what to do in case of a natural disaster (hurricane, fire, flood, etc.).  Someone with this particular knowledge may be difficult to find.

2. Since so many of the objects have designs imprinted on the makeup itself, rather than carved into the outer compact, they would have to be kept open so that visitors could see the design.  In order to protect the colors from fading and dust accumulation, there would have to be some kind of anti-glare, UV-resistant clear plastic shield resting on the powder.  Where I would find such a thing eludes me (see above).  Also, what about cream-based products, like lipstick?  For example, I adore Paul & Joe's cat-shaped lipsticks and blush sticks and believe they are must-display pieces, but you can't exactly put a piece of plastic over them as it will stick and ruin the shape.

While it seems daunting, after a little research I believe the Museum's collection can be well-preserved.  A cursory online search yielded millions of results for museum conservation, and there was one organization I found to be particularly helpful:  The  American Institute for Conservation.  The site is chock full of good information, and while it doesn't offer any advice for handling cosmetics specifically, there is a section on how to properly care for metal objects (most makeup is housed in metal or plastic casing).  There's also a whole page with books on conservation.  Most importantly, the AIC website offers a way for people to find a conservator in their area. 

While I'm not going to hire a conservator just yet - I already have Poe doing conservation for now, anyway -  I will take some of their advice.  While it seems silly, I may invest in some white cotton gloves, since according to the website, "oils and acids that are continuously secreted through human skin are deposited on metal surfaces during handling, where they cause corrosion and pitting...Metal objects should always be handled with clean, white cotton gloves, or vinyl gloves with a pair of cotton gloves over them to further prevent sweat from passing through to the object."  I thought the worst thing that happens when handling a metal compact is that it gets yucky fingerprints, but apparently those fingerprints can actually damage the compact over time.  Other than that, I plan on being just as careful with the objects as I normally am.  It may not be possible to preserve makeup as long as more traditional pieces of art, but it's still worth collecting and displaying as long as it remains in good condition.  In today's breakneck-paced culture that includes temporary pop-up museums and one-day-long exhibitions, maybe some art isn't meant to exist forever.

That said, I hope one day there will be entire academic programs and books on the conservation of cosmetics!

(image from

comments powered by Disqus