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!
As I enter the 12th year of managing the Makeup Museum, I want to arrive at sort of conclusion as to its nature. The purpose of this exercise isn't to determine once and for all what a museum is or isn't, but how the various criteria and definitions laid out to date can be applied to the project I've been spending every ounce of spare time on for over a decade. The big question I want to tackle: Is the Makeup Museum a museum? If we examine the previous definitions and also consider what a museum is not, the answer is a resounding yes.
What makes a museum, well, a museum? Let's take a brief look into how various stakeholders across the globe have attempted to define it. The most recent efforts came in July 2019, when the International Council of Museums (ICOM) proposed an updated definition for the one they had established in 2007. The ensuing controversy and media coverage was actually the impetus for this installment of MM Musings. ICOM's previously agreed-upon definition of a museum was as follows:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
The new definition emphasized the need for inclusiveness and clarified that museums do not exist primarily to make money.
"Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being."
ICOM's definition was met with a swift backlash. Many organizations decried it not only for being too "ideological"/"political" rather than a straightforward definition, but also because it didn't distinguish between museums, libraries or cultural centers. (But I don't think the old definition did either? Also, what is a "polyphonic space"? Still scratching my head on that one.) In September, ICOM delayed their vote on the new definition with no new voting date scheduled. If the entire museum world cannot come to a consensus, obviously it's difficult to say how museums are defined. Having said that, I'm not sure why we can't agree on a definition that essentially combines the old and new proposals. Here's an excerpt from Time's coverage of the debacle in which a Danish curator states that it's not an either/or proposition. "'As museums become more and more conscious of the strong social role they play, there’s a need for a more explicit platform of values from which we work,' says [Jette] Sandahl, who is the founding director of the Museum of World Cultures in Sweden and the Women’s Museum of Denmark. 'Saying that museums can only fulfill traditional functions or play these new roles is what I feel we’ve outgrown in the 21st century.' Sandahl wants that 'or' to be replaced with an 'and.' She also firmly rebukes the criticism that the new definition has a 'political' tone: 'When you say that something is political or ideological, well, is it political to work with marginalized communities and women, as many museums are doing now, or is it political not to?'" I'm fully aware of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral concept, and I think it can be added to the old museum definition. Hell, you can just copy and paste like so:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. Museums are democratizing and inclusive spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to enhance our understanding of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being."
Was that so hard? You're welcome, ICOM. I'm kidding, obviously, but examining my combination of these definitions and seeing how it aligns with the Makeup Museum's activities demonstrates that the Museum meets the criteria outlined above, even if the art world can't be in perfect harmony.
Is the Makeup Museum a "non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society?" Check, check and check. I've never sold anything and have never aspired to make money off the Museum, which is why you've never seen ads here. I might need to pay for Google search ads down the line, but I won't ever have ads on the website. And while I recently experimented with a promoted post on Instagram, it was purely to increase the Museum's visibility in the face of some horribly unethical imitators who are actively trying to erase its presence. Since I don't sell anything or have ads at the website, obviously I don't make any money off of "clicks" (i.e. more website traffic doesn't equal any sort of monetary benefit); I was only trying to raise awareness that there is an existing makeup museum in the U.S. I can't even bring myself to do basic fundraising, and if the Museum occupied a physical space there would be free admission. As for permanence, I've been running this site for over 11 years and collecting for even longer. I don't anticipate stopping either activity soon, unless something really awful happens, so in that sense the Museum is permanent. And while I enjoy collecting for my own sake, the whole point of being online/trying to establish a physical space, which has been a goal since the Museum's inception, obviously means this little space of mine is "in the service of society". The internet is available 24/7 which means the Museum is always "open to the public". The next part of the sentence, "acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment" and part of the third sentence, "hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations" is essentially the Museum's mission statement:
- Preserve and document contemporary and vintage cosmetic items, both for beauty consumers and the general public.
- Promote these items as legitimate cultural artifacts by examining the history, design, and artistic inspiration behind them.
- Explore the sociological and cultural impact of makeup objects, including their usage and advertising.
- Research and record the history of the beauty industry and the culture therein.
- Educate the public on the artistic, cultural, and historic value of makeup from all eras through exhibitions and publications.
The other salient words in the ICOM definitions, "democratizing", "inclusive", "participatory" and "transparent" may seem a bit empty and meaningless in that sometimes business and politicians throw them around with no real follow-through, but the Makeup Museum strives to be all of these things. I'm very clear about how the Museum functions and where I obtain objects. It's a unpaid gig run by myself (with help from the husband and plushie staff) and everything outside of donations from random people - NOT anyone working for or affiliated with makeup companies - is paid for with my own money. I try to make sure the Museum is as "participatory" and "democratizing" as possible by laying out my ideas and asking the public to weigh in on what topics they'd like to see, and I invite comments on each post and exhibition.1 In fact, for the most recent exhibition I wanted to have a section for people to share their fond memories of Stila - alas, no one participated, but I plan on offering this feature for every exhibition going forward. And I love the idea of visible storage, which is a way of democratizing the collection itself.
Does the Museum work on "acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present?" Through discussing beauty's ugly side and recognizing the areas the industry still needs to work on, I'd say so. Another idea I'd like to implement is including information in posts and exhibition labels on whether a particular brand or object is cruelty-free, or if the company producing it is controversial in some way.2 Does the Museum "work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to enhance our understanding of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being"? Yup. Whether it's the countless links in Curator's Corner that lead to articles about the struggles of the art/museum/beauty industries with representation and diversity, intersectional feminist critiques of current and past beauty trends, or explorations of an ethical and environmentally-friendly museum, I think the Museum continually checks all these boxes. And as I mentioned in the past, inclusiveness and accessibility are topics to be covered in future MM Musing posts so as to lay out a concrete plan with specific steps to implement it.
Finally, I'd like to highlight that there's nothing in either of ICOM's definitions about a museum requiring paperwork stating it's a nonprofit organization or occupying a physical space. This brings me to another interesting point, which is the impact that online-only museums have. I was informed in December by someone who shall remain nameless that my museum wasn't real because it doesn't have a physical space. I wish I could somehow anonymously send her these articles about the advantages of online museums and how they can, in fact, be "real" experiences. Not only that, they can provide much more in terms of participation, inclusiveness, engagement and customized experiences. They're the wave of the future! Don't get me wrong, I'd still like to have a physical space. If some investor came along and offered to set one up for me entirely for free and without me having to lift a finger I'd do it - ideally the Museum would have both physical and online spaces. But since I have to choose how to spend my time and money, right now I'd rather go the extra mile to make a really amazing online space that would blow any building right out of the water.
Another point to consider is that we might not be able to determine the exact criteria that makes a museum, but we know when one isn't. The consensus among most museum professionals and the average museum visitor alike is that the new profit-driven organizations are not museums even though they have "museum" in their name. I've written before about the "Instagram museum" and why these places aren't really museums, and as this article suggests I acknowledged what little worth they have and considered incorporating more shallow yet fun concepts into a blueprint for a physical makeup museum - I KNOW my idea for a makeup sponge pit sponsored by Beauty Blender would go viral - but at the end of the day, the online space I've set up is more of a museum than not, and it's certainly more of a museum than these entities that are really just businesses in disguise.
So if the Makeup Museum is real, does that make me a real curator? Eh, honestly, I'd have to say the jury is still out. As I surmised in 2014, most people see me nothing more than a collector and blogger. Without a Ph.D. in art/related field or a degree in museum or curatorial studies, I'm not sure I could call myself a curator. Still, if the Makeup Museum is a real museum and museums should have a curator in place to, at the very least, oversee the collection, what does that make me? All I know is that in the 6 years since I discussed being a curator, I'm still considering the local curatorial practice MFA program that I mentioned in that post. Perhaps if I took the plunge and actually got accepted into the program, I might be taken more seriously. But that's a topic for another time.
In conclusion, after looking at various definitions and what a museum is not, I am now proclaiming the Makeup Museum in its current form is an actual museum. With that, here is the new intro for MM Musings:
Makeup Museum (MM) Musings is a series that examines a broad range of museum topics as they relate to the preservation, research and exhibition of cosmetics, along with my vision for a physical Makeup Museum. These posts help me think through how I'd run things if the Museum occupied a physical public space, as well as examine the ways it's currently functioning. I also hope that these posts make everyone see that just because the Makeup Museum does not have a physical space or official nonprofit designation, it is as valid as other museums, and more legitimate than many other profit-driven entities calling themselves "museums".
So what do you think about all this? Is the Makeup Museum a true organization or is it as real as Santa Claus?
1 AAM's most recent issue of Museum magazine had a great article on how curators are trying to engage more actively with their local communities and ask people directly what they'd like to see for wall labels, exhibition topics and the objects included.
2It was Michelle Hartney's amazing "Correct Art History" piece that got me thinking about including some uncomfortable truths in exhibition labels. Indeed, the impact of her groundbreaking work spurred a worldwide conversation about museum wall labels.