What follows is a guest essay by Elizabeth Scarbrough.
The loudest voices on the internet have had the same response to Lizzo playing James Madison’s crystal flute and Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress: unbridled outrage. How dare she (Lizzo/Kardashian) desecrate a piece of our country’s cultural heritage! Those are precious, irreplaceable items! How will we ever recover!
But should we really treat these two cases alike? In one case, we have an item intimately connected to a particular person during an iconic pop cultural moment, and in the other, we have a unique musical instrument once owned by a founding father. Though they seem the same, Lizzo playing Madison’s crystal flute is a success story of the preservation of musical instruments, while Kardashian wearing Monroe’s dress is a very concerning case for the preservation of historic objects.
In conversations about the preservation of any object, we need to ask what we are preserving. Usually, this will come down to a question of what the preservers value. In preserving a historic theater, for example, do we care about preserving the original materials of the theater (the old 35mm projectors and the 100-year-old velvet seats) or do we care more about preserving its use-value (the role or function the theater served in the community)? If we care about the use-value of the theater, we may swap out the old velvet seats for new comfier ones and add a digital projector to better serve the continuing function of the theater as a space for the community to watch movies. If we care about preserving original materials, we may keep the old seats and 35mm projector. This, perhaps, would make the space less functional as a theater but would preserve it as an historically important artifact. Both forms of preservation are legitimate but serve different purposes.
Kim Kardashian wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress to the MET Gala for only a few minutes. Ripley’s Believe It or Not (a subsidiary of Ripley Entertainment) loaned Kardashian the dress for the event, which she (allegedly) damaged. The theme for the 2022 gala was “America: An Anthology of Fashion.” Perhaps Kardashian thought that nothing would be more American than Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. The “Happy Birthday” dress was specifically made for Monroe, sewn onto her before she took the stage at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962. Monroe died later that year.
Museum professionals have universally condemned Kardashian wearing the dress. ICOM, the International Council of Museums, stated, “Historic garments should not be worn by anybody, public or private figures.” This is not surprising, given that ICOM is a branch of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization, whose other branches concerning cultural heritage preservation often fall on the side of persevering original material (sometimes to the detriment of what is referred to as ‘intangible’ or ‘living’ heritage). In wanting to preserve original materials at all costs, the dress was not to be used as a garment.
It’s also not a surprise that the artworld condemned Ripley since Ripley is an entertainment venue, not a museum. While tour operators might call it the “Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not!’ Museum,” Ripley is careful to refer to itself as a “franchising company” that specializes in entertainment opportunities. As a division of the Jim Pattison Group (named after and financed by the billionaire Jim Pattison), Ripley’s is the second largest privately held company in Canada. The Jim Pattison Group purchased Monroe’s dress for $4.8 million, making it the most expensive dress at auction at the time of its purchase in 2018.
Even then, people worried about an entertainment venue owning an important historical dress, and it now appears that they were right to be concerned. As an entertainment venue, the company has none of the usual obligations and norms around preservation upheld by other organizations. Ripley’s goal is to entertain and make money, rather than provide a repository for culturally important material. Lending the dress out made strategic sense: if it had not been damaged, the move would have raised Ripley’s profile, driving up profits.
Museums, on the other hand, adhere (though often loosely) to a code of ethics set forth by the AAM (American Alliance of Museums). The code of ethics is grounded on public trust and public service. They are custodians of their artifacts and must keep records to document items’ travel and preservation. According to the AAM, their collection activities must “[p]romote the public good rather than individual financial gain.”
Ripley has no such mission statement. On its website, the closest thing I could find is a statement about their wealth: “With over… $10.1 billion in sales, The Jim Pattison Group provides sound financial backing for the growth of Ripley Entertainment and our family of attractions.” I’ll be the first one to admit that museums are ethically fraught; we need only to look at all the immorally acquired artifacts with sketchy provenance to question their moral commitments. But museums nevertheless play an important role in preserving and protecting cultural heritage; their role in society is supposed to be different from an entertainment venue.
Kardashian herself also deserves our criticism for damaging the dress. Her goal was to make a splash on the red carpet, and so she chose to wear the dress despite the obvious possibility of irreparable damage. While she denies her role in the damage, we do know that the dress was handmade for Monroe’s body – a shape different from Kardashian’s own. We also know Monroe was (previously) the only person to wear the iconic gown. To my untrained eyes, the damage to the dress seems obvious. Crystals are missing; there is a torn strap, and there is noticeable stretching of materials around the zipper. A video Kardashian released on Ripley’s Believe It or Not! YouTube channel shows her struggling to put on the dress.
Kardashian wore the dress for mere minutes and wore a replica of the dress for the rest of the event. But if there was a replica all along, why not wear that for the whole event? Here we might blame the aura – not of the artist (or designer, Bob Mackie) – but of the original wearer. Kardashian wanted to wear the very same dress Marilyn Monroe wore. She had to wear the original materials, even at the risk of those very same materials, and this is what she should be blamed for.
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Now take Lizzo instead. Lizzo was invited to play a flute that once belonged to James Madison. The invitation came from Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, via Twitter. The Librarian of Congress is a position nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Hayden is the first Black woman to hold this position. She reached out to Lizzo and arranged a private tour for the singer (and flautist) and organized the transportation of the flute to the concert hall. On stage, Lizzo exclaimed, “Bitch, I just twerked and played James Madison’s crystal flute from the 1800s… We just made history tonight!”
According to White House Historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, James Madison was a “garden-variety slaveholder” who bequeathed over 100 enslaved people to his son. To have a Black woman, one who is a classically trained flute player and pop culture icon, twerk and perform on a flute once owned by this man does feel historic. However, Lizzo has since faced outrage from two very different groups. Some have asserted that she disrespected Madison by playing his flute, while others have said that, as a Black woman, she gave undue respect to Madison as a slaveholder.
Let’s go back to philosophy and preservation. Musical instruments are a member of a class of objects that are usually preserved for their use value. Other such objects include airplanes, antique cars, and timepieces (e.g., clocks and watches). Wear and tear on small parts are often replaced to preserve function. For example, the Smithsonian’s Hall of Musical Instruments includes several 18th-century Stradivari stringed instruments which are regularly lent out to the Smithsonian Chamber Players for concerts. The mission of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society is to “take the instruments out of their cases and make them sing.”
The Library of Congress has 1,800 flutes in its collection. These instruments are meant to be played and not merely (visually) admired, and there are procedures in place for lending out these instruments. In a press release, the Library said, “When Lizzo asked if she could play the flute at her Tuesday concert in front of thousands of fans, the library’s collection, preservation, and security teams were up to the challenge. At the Library, curators ensure that the item can be transported in a customized protective container and a Library curator and security officer are always guarding the item until it is secured once more.”
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The disanalogies between Kardashian and Lizzo are numerous. The most important is the fact that the flute is preserved to be used, and the dress is not. And in this case, the flute – which could reasonably have undergone alterations consistent with its purpose of being playable – actually didn’t need any alterations, where the dress – for which alterations are themselves a kind of damage – did need them.
Finally, and I think most importantly, the flute, while owned by James Madison, was not closely associated with his identity. While the average American associated the dress with Marilyn Monroe, very few people (before Lizzo) would have been able to identify the flute as owned by Madison. This anonymity makes Madison’s flute a much more clear-cut case of preservation for use-value. Monroe’s dress, by contrast, is an identity-associated usable artifact that we may want to preserve for its aura of association with her figure and, as such, we should preserve the original material.
More difficult and interesting are cases of musical instruments intimately associated with a particular musician – Prince’s guitars or Glenn Gould’s pianos. Here there is a tension between wanting to preserve the use-value of the instrument and the aura of the artist. More than most other classical pianists, Gould’s pianos showed the wear and tear on the instrument. And in terms of classical musicians, his quirky personality led him to have a rock-star like status. Gould’s piano (CD 318) shook up the preservation world when people went to war about whether to treat it like an ‘artifact’ (preserving the original material Gould touched) versus preserving it as a musical instrument. Some of the shabby flaws and imperfections of the piano were maintained, preserving the aura of the musician. Likewise, Prince’s “Cloud” guitar was intimately connected to his on-stage personality. The National Museum of American History now owns Prince’s first “Cloud” guitar – likely the one played in the film Purple Rain. It is currently not on view, nor are there any plans to lend it out to be played.
I suspect that the real reason people are upset with Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute has much less to do with their preservation principles and more to do with racist dog whistles. But I’m glad the issue of the preservation of historic objects has surfaced in the public imagination. The bottom line is this. When preserving a historic object, we must ask ourselves what we value. Do we value being able to use the object, or do we value the aura of the person associated with that object? Answering this question will guide our preservation practices as well as help us determine the appropriateness of present-day interactions with a preserved historic object.
Elizabeth Scarbrough (she/they) is an Associate Teaching Professor at Florida International University. More about them can be found at elizabethscarbrough.com or follow them on letterboxd.com (lizscar).