A step a- “head”: improving storage for our mummified heads

As I mentioned previously, we have several mummified heads in the Artifact Lab. Luckily, all of them are stable and do not require much in the way of conservation treatment – instead we have focused on examination, documentation, and some light surface cleaning, and in one case, the removal of an old exhibit armature.

We have a lot of things going on at the moment, so thankfully, I’ve gotten some help with this work. A couple weeks ago we had a group of 5 undergraduate art conservation students from the University of Delaware in the lab – they spent the month of January interning in our department on a project focused on documenting and cleaning a group of Arctic boats in storage.

Ellen Nigro and Rebecca Selig condition reporting a kayak

They wrapped up that project a day early, and so on the last day of their internship, they got to work on something totally different – and several of them elected to help condition report one of the heads.

Rebecca Cruz, Emily Cummins, and David Brickhouse examining a mummified head

After fully documenting the heads and carrying out any necessary treatment, our main goal is to construct new storage mounts for these remains. Our Egyptian storage areas are fairly packed with artifacts, and because of this, many things are stored in a way that makes them hard to access or see without a lot of handling.

An example of artifacts wrapped nicely in acid-free tissue in a drawer – unfortunately, there is a lot of handling required to see these objects

New storage supports will improve access and provide better protection for these remains. Our plan is to make handling trays for the heads, which can then be housed within custom-made boxes.

An example of a handling tray, made using acid-free corrugated board and Volara polyethylene foam

I’m getting some help with this as well – Artifact Lab intern Melissa Miller has been working on the first tray and box.

Melissa working on creating a custom-made box for one of the heads

We will be sure to post photos once we’ve completed them!

 

What do the conservators do when they’re *not* in the Artifact Lab?

Molly Gleeson, the primary project conservator for the Artifact Lab is on vacation so, if you come by over the next little while, one of the other staff conservators (Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek and I – Lynn Grant) will be taking turns being the Conservator on Duty. While there, we work on the same sorts of projects that Molly does but you might wonder what we do when it’s not our turn in the fishbowl. With a collection of over a million artifacts, there’s plenty to keep three (or even 30, if we just had room) busy. Because Penn Museum’s collections are so large, we have to prioritize what we work on. The conservation treatments we’re working on right now are mostly for objects going on exhibition (mainly Native American artifacts for an exhibition opening in a year), or on loan (we loan artifacts to Museums all over the world; this fall we’ve worked on objects going to New York, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Spain, Amsterdam, Switzerland, and Taiwan, to name just a few) or artifacts being photographed for publication.

One of the places conservator Lynn Grant spent time recently: an art storage warehouse in Connecticut where some of our collections were stored (white crates).

In addition, we work very closely with other Museum staff on preventative conservation (see Molly’s earlier blog post, to keep our collections in the best possible condition. This means monitoring storage conditions, artifacts on exhibition, advising on materials used in display, and many other tasks. These don’t always happen in the Museum, either. We conservators often act as couriers, accompanying artifacts as they travel to make sure that they receive the proper care. One recent courier trip I did has a certain amount of overlap with work in the Artifact lab, since it involved an Ancient Egyptian tomb chapel.

One block (the false door) from the offering chapel of Kapure. This single limestone block weighs over 9000 pounds.

The late Old Kingdom offering chapel of Kapure from Saqqara (dating to ca. 2300 B.C.) was once part of this high ranking official’s mudbrick mastaba tomb. The interior of the chapel was lined with limestone blocks beautifully decorated with carved and painted scenes representing the deceased seated at a table of offerings and receiving funerary provisions. Part of the chapel of Kapure is on display in the Museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery. The rest, which was part of a traveling exhibition in the late 1990s, has been in storage in Connecticut since 2000. This was supposed to be a temporary situation but it’s gone on for longer than we ever expected and now that there is a suitable storage facility here in Philadelphia, we decided to bring the tomb chapel closer to home. Why wouldn’t we just bring it back to the Museum, you ask? Well, it’s kind of big and very unwieldy. There were 8 crates, the heaviest of which weighed over 9000 lbs. We hope to be able to reinstall it in our Egyptian Galleries before too much longer but until then, it will stay in specialized art storage.

My colleagues in adventure, Bob Thurlow (left) and Jen Wegner, get ready to to work on our crated limestone blocks.

Getting it there was a bit of an adventure. Three Museum staff members: Bob Thurlow of the Registrar’s Office, Dr. Jen Wegner of the Egyptian Section, and myself, traveled to the warehouse where it was stored in Connecticut. There we had to open each crate; document the current condition of the blocks inside both with digital photography and written descriptions; check that the crates were still in good enough condition to protect the artifacts during transit; make any necessary improvements to the crates; then oversee the loading of the crates on to a very large truck; follow the truck to the new warehouse; and finally supervise the unloading and placement of the crates there. This all took two-and-a-half days and meant long hours working in an unheated warehouse – in November.

Art handlers and warehouse men load the false door crate on to the truck, using the big forklift (the smaller one couldn’t lift the 9000 lb weight). The crate fit with about 2 inches to spare – a tribute to Bob Thurlow’s excellent planning and preparation.

Jen Wegner explaining the finer points of the false door block to two of the warehouse employees just before we put the lid back on and prepared to take it back to Philadelphia.

This is not the glamorous part of our jobs! Still, it needed to be done and it was a great chance to get up close and personal with some gorgeous Egyptian funerary art. Working with Jen Wegner was a treat as she was able to tell us what we were looking at and read the inscriptions. I’m sure Jen got tired of me asking what various symbols were, especially since most of them seemed to be bread – apparently Egyptian funerals were a carb-fest!

posted by Lynn Grant

Is that…real??

One of the most common questions we get asked in the Artifact Lab is, “is that … real?”.

A real human head undergoing conservation treatment in the Artifact Lab

And our answer is always, yes. Everything that we’re working on in the Artifact Lab is indeed real, and from Egypt. Objects in the lab right now range from between 4000-2000 years old and many were excavated and came into the Penn Museum collection over 100 years ago.

Collecting Egyptian materials was of great interest to the Penn Museum from the very beginning, when it was founded in 1889. The Egyptian and Mediterranean Section was created a year later, and Sara Yorke Stevenson was named the first curator of this section-she was also the first female curator of an Egyptian collection in the US! Her goal was to build this collection quickly and through excavation as much as possible, and objects came into the collection through expeditions funded by the museum, including projects run by Sir William M. Flinders Petrie. Because so many objects were acquired in this way, we can be sure of their authenticity and provenience.

In a few months, however, we will have to modify our answer to the “is it real?” question slightly. There is one object currently on display that will soon be replaced with a replica.

A painted linen mummy shroud currently on display In the Artifact Lab.

This painted linen mummy shroud is now on display In the Artifact Lab. Due to its sensitivity to light, it can only be safely displayed for 3 months at very low light levels. After this time, a replica of the shroud will take its place.

The control of light exposure is an important part of any preventive conservation program. Preventive conservation refers to actions taken to minimize the rate of deterioration of collections and objects, and this includes managing the museum environment, including temperature, relative humidity, light, and pests. To prevent or reduce light damage, many museums have an exhibition lighting policy, which provides guidelines for the allowable light levels and cumulative light exposure for objects based on their light sensitivity (textiles for instance are more sensitive to light than stone objects).

While we will have many interesting things to see throughout the duration of this exhibit, now is the chance to come and see this incredible funerary shroud-the real thing-before it is returned to storage to prevent light damage.