One of the most interesting new Museum projects is our current exhibition, In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies. It’s unique in a number of ways, but notably for the fact that you can actually talk to the experts as they conduct live conservation work right before your eyes. As a coordinator for our social media at the Penn Museum, I’ve been having a great time sharing stories and photos from this exhibition, and wanted to learn a little more about its background. I spoke about it with Molly Gleeson, Project Conservator in the Artifact Lab – here’s what she had to say.
Can you tell me what “In the Artifact Lab” is, and how it got started?
“In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies” is an exhibition that highlights the conservation of Egyptian mummies and related funerary items. The main feature of the exhibit is a glass-enclosed conservation lab, which allows visitors the opportunity to see a conservator (often me!) at work examining objects and carrying out conservation treatments. Twice a day, the conservator is available to answer questions and to talk about the ongoing work in the lab. Outside of the lab, there are artifacts on display and several interactives, including a digital microscope station and a Smartboard, which we update regularly with information about what we’re working on.
How did this get started? Well, the museum currently has five conservators on staff, including one Fellow, as well as several interns. Most of our department’s work is being carried out in temporary spaces until the museum’s conservation labs are renovated. There isn’t really enough room in these temporary spaces to conserve one mummy or one coffin, let alone a big group of these objects. So, this led to the idea for this project—use a gallery as a temporary conservation space to treat some of these bigger items, and allow the public to view the day-to-day work. This “open conservation lab” concept is a recent trend in museums, and we’re really excited to offer Penn Museum’s unique version to our visitors. Our Head Conservator, Lynn Grant, wrote a bit more about this in a previous post.
How did you get involved in artifact conservation?
I am a conservator with a Master’s degree in Art Conservation. In graduate school, I specialized in “archaeological and ethnographic objects” and most of my professional experience is related to working on these types of materials. I also have an undergraduate degree in art conservation, and several years of experience working in museums and on archaeological excavations. I first became interested in this field because I was interested in art and archaeology, but also in pursuing a career in the sciences-art conservation seemed to be the perfect combination.
What about “In the Artifact Lab” have you enjoyed the most so far?
It has been a lot of fun getting to talk to the public every day. I’m used to working “behind the scenes” and often in the basement or a space tucked far away in the museum. So being front-and-center, working in public view, is a huge change. Talking to people on a regular basis has also made my experience working on these artifacts very enriching-conservation always involves research, but usually directed towards specific details about objects. Here, in the Artifact Lab, I’m asked questions every day about all sorts of things, and I’m inspired and challenged by our visitors to dig deeper into details I would otherwise not focus on. We’re featuring some of these FAQs on our companion blog.
If you’re curious to learn more, you can come and have your own Q&A with Molly or one of her fellow conservators. Stop in for their Q&A periods Tuesdays through Fridays, from 11:15 to 11:45 am or 2:00 to 2:30 pm, or Saturdays and Sundays, from 1:00 to 1:30 pm or 3:30 to 4:00 pm.