Why does it cost so much to clean old sequins?

By Christopher Tkaczyk
October 21, 2016
National Museum of American History Red Ruby Slippers
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Time has taken its toll on the most famous shoes in history.

The ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” are the best known movie memorabilia in the world, and as such, are treated with the care and respect usually reserved for royalty.

Case in point: In 2013, Fortune sent photographer Gregg Segal to Washington, D.C., to make a portrait of the board of the Smithsonian Institution alongside items from its vast collection, and the Ruby Slippers received almost as much attention and security detail as the Vice President.

“After Joe Biden, the shoes were the most precious thing in the room,” photo editor Alix Colow told Travel + Leisure.

The board of the Smithsonian Institute, as photographed for Fortune's May 20, 2013 issue.
| Credit: Gregg Segal for Fortune

But anyone who has visited the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., knows that seeing The Shoes Worn By Judy Garland up close can be highly underwhelming. They sit in a shabby, dimly lit case, faded and dull. There’s no dazzle. No sparkle. No Hollywood magic. The main reason? They’re made from cheap materials that were not designed to last beyond the length of a film shoot.

So the recent decision by the museum to restore the slippers is a welcome one. But for $300,000? Why does it cost so much to clean a bunch of faded plastic sequins?

First, let’s take into consideration that preservation costs for items in the institute’s vast collection typically aren’t fully covered by government funding, and therefore the museum must rely on private donations for conservation projects, such as it did for the original Star-Spangled Banner and Neil Armstrong’s space suit.

“Federal appropriations provide the foundation of the Smithsonian's operating budget and support core functions–safeguarding the collections, building operations and maintenance as well as staffing,” museum spokesperson Melinda Machado told T+L. “However, the Smithsonian also relies on private donations to support many of its priorities, including the conservation and exhibition of precious objects such as the Ruby Slippers.”

According to the Kickstarter campaign, the shoes “need immediate conservation care and a new, state-of-the-art display case, in order to slow their deterioration and protect them from environmental harm.”

Credit: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute

The slippers are composed of at least 12 different materials, from the cotton felt on the soles to the brass that secures the ruby crystals on the bows. Each of those dozen materials needs to be considered in creating and executing the preservation plan.

“Our manager of preservation services and an objects conservator will work with a team of scientists who specialize in the analysis of materials,” Machado said.

The scientists will study the sequins and other materials to better understand the optimal exhibition conditions for the shoes, and consider the proper temperature, light, humidity, and oxygen that will slow deterioration.

The Smithsonian will also hire a designer and case-maker to manufacture a new display case to specifications that will best preserve the slippers.

“It may be that the case needs to have low oxygen or a different atmosphere, but we will not know that until we conduct the research,” Machado said.

So with a $300,000 budget, will the display case specially designed to house the ruby slippers be encrusted with emeralds? That’s a horse of a different color.