Where physics meets Renaissance beauty regimes

An art installation based on Edinburgh-led research is to feature in a major exhibition that challenges established ideals of beauty.

Renaissance cosmetics

Soft matter physicist, Prof Wilson Poon and art historian, Prof Jill Burke have been working together to learn about the history and science of Renaissance cosmetics.

Both researchers are interested in thinking about cosmetics as ‘goo’, or ‘liquids with bits’ – substances that are neither completely solid nor completely liquid.

Professor Burke said:

The way materials flow – for example how a skin cream might spread on the skin – affects how they are made, stored and dispensed.

Professor Poon added:

These flow properties are of key importance for the formulation of skin and hair care products now, just as it was in the Renaissance.

Multi-sensory installation

As a result of their collaboration, they have developed The Beauty Sensorium - a multi-sensory commission where visitors can enter the world of Renaissance cosmetics, hair and skincare. The exhibition shows how Renaissance cosmetic makers wrestled with many of the same technical challenges as modern soft matter scientists.

The Beauty Sensorium will include five cosmetic samples of varying textures and viscosities, made from ingredients including mutton fat, mastic gum and rose water. These will be presented in lit glass vessels that will highlight the life of the substance within, how it moves and transforms when animated by stirring or heat. Visitors will catch fragrances of each substance as they walk around the installation and hear the sounds made during their preparation. The substances demonstrate that much of our scientific knowledge is acquired through first-hand, sensory experiences.

Home scientists

Professor Burke and Professor Poon are trialling historical recipes that may provide insights for beauty products today. Both hope that the project will inspire people to recreate the recipes themselves and become scientists in their own kitchens.

A video featuring Professor Burke and Dr Andreia Fonseca da Silva, a research fellow from the Edinburgh Complex Fluids Partnership who formulated the cosmetic samples on show, will feature as part of the exhibition and highlight the commonalities – and differences – of inventiveness in the lab and at home.

The Cult of Beauty

The Beauty Sensorium commission has been created for The Cult of Beauty exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London which runs from 26 October to 28 April 2024. The show examines how morality, status and health have shaped ideas about beauty throughout history, and it encourages visitors to foster dialogue, reflection and more inclusive definitions of beauty.

The installation has been developed as part of the Renaissance Goo project, funded by an APEX grant from the Royal Society.