In the days after Kim Kardashian attended the Met Gala in the exact same slinky number that Marilyn Monroe immortalized when she wore it in 1962 to perform for President John F. Kennedy, reports began to emerge that fashion archivists and Monroe scholars, among others, were not happy. I could see their point: They were aghast that such a fragile dress had been removed from the vault and worn by a reality star, who, even if she didn’t bust a seam, was exposing the dress to any number of elements that could damage it. How dare Kardashian desecrate an object of untold historical significance? It was tacky, reckless, unethical. What kind of person thinks one night on a red carpet is more important than preserving history?
These arguments all crashed into another fact I learned around the same time: The dress’ permanent home is at … Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Orlando, Florida.
Indeed, a place whose other attractions include 100 shrunken heads and a “dance party” room where you can take selfies with wax figures is the keeper of this precious artifact. Did the conservationists understand that they were rebuking the ethics of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the company that sells books to elementary schoolers who want to read about a cat with 28 toes?
Ripley’s purchased the dress at an auction in 2016 for $4.8 million and normally displays it at one of its “museums” in Orlando. But these museums, of which there are 29 around the world, are not museums in the sense that the Met is a museum. “Ripley’s is a corporation,” said Katie Stringer Clary, a historian at Carolina Coastal University who has worked in museums and teaches museum studies. “They’re a company; they’re not a museum.” Some of Ripley’s other most expensive acquisitions have included a $450,000 lightsaber from Star Wars and, in the 1980s, $2 million for a Rolls-Royce once owned by John Lennon. Ripley’s also owns aquariums; the one in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is home to a penguin who issues yearly Super Bowl predictions.
In addition to the types of items these places exhibit—they emphasize some controversial “curiosities” and retain some of the circus-like flair of the “odditorium” Robert Ripley debuted at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair—the biggest reason that they don’t qualify as “real” museums is that they are privately owned and for-profit. Stinger Clary pointed to the American Alliance of Museums and the International Council of Museums as bodies that have come up with definitions for what constitutes a museum: The latter’s, for example, reads, “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.”
In other words, a museum like the Met adheres to a set of rules and ethics about its collection, rules that would not allow it to lend out and potentially damage a historic dress. The Daily Beast pointed out that conservator Sarah Scaturro wrote, in an Instagram caption about Kardashian wearing the Monroe dress, “When I was the head of the Costume Institute’s conservation lab I had to swat off requests by people (including Anna Wintour) to have irreplaceable objects in the collection be worn by models and celebrities.” But the dress in question was not part of the Met’s collection. “Would the Met have allowed this to happen to something in their collections as a museum?” Stringer Clary asked. “I’m pretty sure their collections policy would not allow that.”
If officials at the Met had advance knowledge of what Kardashian was wearing, one might argue that ethics should have compelled them to intervene. But that’s the Met; Ripley’s is not playing by the same rule book. When I asked the company if it has an ethics policy, a spokeswoman didn’t directly answer, but responded with a statement attributed to John Corcoran, director of exhibits and archives at Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The most relevant thing it said was: “We take great pride in owning the ‘Happy Birthday’ dress and consulted with multiple textile experts and conservators on this endeavor. While conservation practices are inherently conservative, their input helped us craft a set of precautions and procedures for the Met Gala. This caution proved to be sound, as no damage occurred at the event.”
It’s no wonder really that Ripley’s lent out the dress: Its objective is not to educate or to preserve artifacts for the good of the humanity. It’s to make money. The whole reason the company bought the dress was likely that it presented an opportunity to do more of that by attracting visitors in Florida. In that light, letting Kardashian wear its dress was likely a sound business decision: Think of all the exposure. The dress may even be more valuable now: “Kim Kardashian has added to the pop culture significance of Monroe’s iconic dress,” reads a press release on Ripley’s website, alongside an announcement that the company will move the dress to its Hollywood location and display it there “for a limited time beginning Memorial Day weekend.” Cha-ching.
Maybe you’re thinking there should be rules against this sort of thing, that a private company shouldn’t just be allowed to buy a priceless artifact and put it at risk of being damaged or destroyed. And that makes sense, until you really think about it. “I don’t know if it could be regulated or should be regulated,” said Stringer Clary. Who would define what’s too important to be owned privately on account of being part of our collective cultural heritage? Individuals and companies own all sorts of things and have the right to sell them to the highest bidder if they so wish. They can donate them to real museums or be choosey about who they sell them to, but ultimately, there’s no stopping capitalism. Ripley’s owns the dress fair and square and can do whatever it wants with it. If the company wanted to cut up the dress and make crystal-studded curtains of it, that would be its right. (There are some exceptions to this rule for works of visual art, granting living artists the ability to prevent their work from destruction, but there is no precedent for these carve-outs applying to dresses worn by Hollywood legends.)
And to be fair, Ripley’s said it did try to protect the dress: “We basically had many conversations with Kim and her team and put a lot of requirements in place with security and with the handling of the dress,” Amanda Joiner, a vice president of licensing and publishing at Ripley’s, said to the Daily Beast. “The dress was never with Kim alone. It was always with a Ripley’s representative. We always ensured that at any time we felt that the dress was in danger of ripping or we felt uncomfortable about anything, we always had the ability to be able to say we not were going to continue with this.”
Besides, for Stringer Clary, there’s another, potentially thornier element of the story that’s going under-discussed: “I saw that they [Ripley’s] gave Kim a lock of Marilyn Monroe’s hair,” said the professor, who also researches museums and human remains, which happens to be an extremely knotty area of museum policy: “I wondered where they got it, first of all.”