A recap of Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I just returned to work after 2 fascinating days of Death Salon: Mutter Museum, an event filled with presentations, speaker panels, Q&A sessions, murder ballads, a Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, and Death Quizzo.

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. There were a wide variety of speakers presenting on topics related to death, how different cultures deal with death (both past and present), and our relationship to death and mortality. I spoke on the first day about my work on the mummies here at the Penn Museum – mostly about how we treat them today and how this has changed over time, using examples including PUM I, our baby boy mummy, Wilfred/a, and Nespekashuti. But you’ve heard about all of them before. Let me provide a brief outline of all of the other speakers, with links as appropriate.

  • Dr. Marianne Hamel is a medical examiner who spoke about what it’s really like to be a forensic pathologist vs. what you see on TV. She also was a consultant for the wildly popular podcast Serial and co-founder of Death Under Glass, which also had a booth at the Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, selling watches, umbrellas, notepads, etc. featuring beautiful forensic microscopic images.
  • Alexis Jeffcoat (Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery) spoke about the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and their efforts to make Laurel Hill a place for the living as well as for the dead, with vibrant community programming.
  • Ryan Matthew Cohn spoke about historical skeletal preparations and models of the human body, along with his own work to make exploded and dissected skulls.
  • A panel discussion about American death spaces with Colin Dickey about the battlefields of the American Civil War and Bess Lovejoy on Hart Island: The World’s Biggest Tax-Funded Cemetery. I had never heard of Hart Island before, where unclaimed bodies and bodies of the poor and stillborn are soon to number one million. There are recent efforts to document the burials and transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.
  • Evi Numen, Mutter Museum exhibitions manager, spoke about the Curious Story of One-Eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act, discussing the struggle to legislate cadaver dissection and ownership.
  • Dr. Paul Koudounaris (a now 5-time Death Salon speaker!), who has extensively researched charnel houses and ossuaries, discussed various cultures’ relationships with the dead. He specifically shared information about Indonesian communities who mummify family members and exhume them each year to care for and celebrate them, and sometimes even keep them in their homes.
  • A panel discussion about anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) with Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, analytical chemist Dr. Daniel Kirby, Juniata College Chemistry Chair Dr. Richard Hark, and Death Salon Director and USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Their project is aimed at surveying and creating an inventory of books bound in human skin, and they are using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine this. So far they have tested 22 books – 12 are actually human, while the others are sheep, cow, and even faux skin. The Mutter has the largest known collection in the world, with 5 authentic human skin books.
  • A presentation by Sarah Troop about the rituals and art of child death in Mexico. She discussed the tradition, which used to be practiced in many Latin American countries, where dead children become a hybrid between saints and angels called angelitos, and the most famous angelito, Miguel Angel Gaitan from Argentina, who died in 1967.
  • Dr. Norma Bowe discussed her death class at Kean University which she has been teaching for 15 years and has a 3-year wait list. She uses experiential learning in the class and they make several field trips, including to a hospice care facility, a Ronald McDonald house, a funeral home, a cemetery, a maximum security prison, a crematory, and a medical examiners office. A book has been written about her called The Death Class and its currently being turned into a TV show.
  • Elizabeth Harper spoke about incorrupt saints, which apparently aren’t very easy to identify just by looking at them. Her presentation included images of saints she’s visited and a little game of “Incorrupt or Nah”.
  • Artist David Orr presented his work photographing human skulls from the Mutter Museum collection and mirroring one side to create perfectly symmetrical results. This project, Perfect Vessels, can be viewed on his website.
  • Penn physician Dr. Erin Lockard spoke about death from the doctor/daughter perspective in a conversation with Death Salon Director Megan Rosenbloom. She shared her experiences both as a physician who specializes in geriatric medicine and how experiencing her mother’s illness and end of life has affected her work.
  • Mutter Museum Director Dr. Robert Hicks gave a presentation entitled Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums. He spoke about our relationship and discomfort around post-mortem imagery, and how other cultures are ahead of us in terms of articulating an aesthetic of death, decay, and mortality.
  • Christine Colby discussed the issues for transgender people in how to preserve their identity in death and and the work that is being carried out to assist transgender people and their families and friends.
  • The formal presentations of the conference concluded with a session entitled Ask a Mortician LIVE. Two morticians, Sheri Booker and Caitlin Doughty (Death Salon co-founder), fielded audience questions about their work.

The talks were incredibly interesting and often quite inspiring (and even tear-provoking), and there was an enthusiastic audience of at least 200 people by my count (probably more). The engaging day-time programming was supplemented by some terrific evening events, including behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter, a Death Ball with a performance of 15th-century funerary music by The Divine Hand Ensemble, murder ballad performances, and a Death Quizzo. This conference had some of the best opportunities for people-watching too. Unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos but if you’re interested you can see some on the Death Salon Instagram account.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I’m excited to be presenting at Death Salon: Mutter Museum on Monday afternoon.

Death Salon is an organization that was founded to “bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art.” They hold annual events in the spirit of the 18th-century salon to encourage discussions on topics related to death, mortality, mourning, and their effects on culture and history.

The Mutter Museum event will be the fifth Death Salon – previous meetings were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and most recently at the Getty Villa.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum is kicking off tomorrow afternoon with a walking tour through 3 historic downtown 18th-century cemeteries, organized by the Obscura Society Philly. Tomorrow evening will be a VIP Death Ball (and gotta love this: the dress code is haute macabre). There will be 2 days of talks which begin on Monday morning, covering topics by a wide variety of speakers including osteologists, museum curators, scientists, medical examiners, artists, and musicians, and more (and me). I’ll be speaking about the conservation of Egyptian mummies at the Penn Museum and how this practice has evolved over time.

I’ll follow up sometime next week with a little recap of the talks and any other interesting tidbits, which there certainly will be.


ARCE’s 66th Annual Meeting

Last week, I attended the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which was in Houston, Texas. I was invited by Dr. David Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, to speak on a panel on the Bersheh funerary equipment of Ahanakht, which we have been working on here in the Artifact Lab. When the Artifact Lab opened in fall 2012, we began working on this material, which included conservation and a full transcription, translation, and analysis of the inscribed texts.

The panel at ARCE included Dr. Silverman, who spoke about the discoveries that he has made about Ahanakht’s funerary equipment, including translations of the texts on the outer coffin and the discovery of canopic box pieces, previously thought to be pieces of an offering box, or additional pieces of the coffins. Leah Humphrey, a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, presented her work on the transcription and translation of the edge inscriptions on the outer coffin boards. I spoke about the conservation of the boards, and the technical study that we have carried out to better understand their materials and technology (my presentation was co-authored by Alexis North, another conservator in our department).

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

In addition to our panel, there were two sessions devoted to ongoing work in Abydos, which included presentations by Dr. Josef Wegner, who spoke about the recent discovery of the pharaoh Senebkay, Dr. Jane Hill, who presented the forensic examination of Senebkay’s remains, and two Penn graduate students, Paul Verheist and Shelby Justl, who spoke about projects related to the excavations and finds from the recent seasons in Abydos.

It was my first time attending the conference, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all the talks and meeting lots of new people. A PDF containing the full list of speakers and abstracts (in the 2015 abstract booklet) can be found here.

While in Houston, I also had the opportunity to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), and in particular, their recently-installed Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

The exhibit was very impressive, and consists of objects from the HMNS collection, but also large loans from institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Egyptian collection at Chiddingstone Castle. I was especially interested to see some objects similar to those I have worked on or am working on in the Artifact Lab, including this falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, which is similar to our own corn mummy and coffin:

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

and the coffin of Neskhons, made of painted wood, from the Third Intermediate Period, and similar to the painted wooden coffin currently in the lab:

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

I left the ARCE meeting feeling invigorated to return to work, not only because I was relieved that my presentation was behind me, but mostly because of the new things that I learned, arming me with new resources, questions, and directions to take in my own projects. I think this is the best that you can hope for when attending a conference!


As us anything! (on our Reddit AMA)

We open our windows in the lab twice daily, inviting our visitors to ask us anything, so why not open our windows just a bit wider, inviting anyone on the Internet to fire questions at us? We are doing just that, tomorrow, from 11:00-12:30 EST on reddit.com. I must confess that other than perusing Reddit a few times last fall while I, along with much of the rest of the world, listened to the first season of Serial, I have no experience using Reddit. According to it’s Wikipedia page, Reddit is an “entertainment, social networking, and news website” and content entries are organized by areas of interest called “subreddits.” One of the most popular subreddits is IAmA (“I am A”) where a user may post “AMAs” (Ask Me Anything).

So tomorrow, Wednesday March 11, from 11:00-12:30, Lynn Grant and I will be online for our very own AMA with the title “We are museum conservators working with ancient Egyptian artifacts in full public view, at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Ask us anything!

Tom Stanley, our intrepid Public Relations/Social Media Coordinator, set the AMA up, and posted instructions on how to find us on Reddit tomorrow if you’d like to follow along or ask us a question. You can find the blogpost with instructions by following this link.

Looking forward to hearing from you tomorrow!

In celebration of International Women’s Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about how to recognize this occasion, and the fact that March is Women’s History Month, In the Artifact Lab. First, I would be remiss not to note the Egyptian women represented here on exhibit, including Tawahibre (via her painted wooden coffin lid), Nefrina (by her painted cartonnage mask), Tanwa (a 5-year old mummified girl), and 2 unknown Roman-period women – one whose head is on exhibit, and another represented by her painted plaster funerary mask.

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman's head, unknown woman's funerary mask

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman’s head, unknown woman’s funerary mask

But there are some other very important women that you’ll see In the Artifact Lab as well – including the other 4 conservators in our department, Head Conservator Lynn Grant, Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek, and Tessa de Alarcon, Research Associate Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau, and many post-graduate fellows, graduate and pre-program interns, and volunteers. Sometimes you’ll see women outside of our department working with us, such as Egyptian Section Associate Curator Jen Wegner and Assistant Keeper Jean Walker, and Dr. Janet Monge, Curator and Keeper of the Physical Anthropology Section, and we also collaborate with many women both within and outside the museum. To highlight just some of these terrific colleagues, check out the slideshow below:


I would have liked to include a few other women in this slideshow who we work with regularly, but unfortunately I don’t have photos of them working in the lab – notably Dr. Gretchen Hall and Dr. Naomi Miller. And then there are the women who work in other departments in the museum – I was going to make a list, but then I realized that we collaborate with all of the departments in important ways.

We are also very grateful for the women who have come before us at the museum, and I hope/plan to write another post later this month focusing on one person in particular who helped pave the way for the women not only in our museum, but in our field.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Exploring Villanova’s new CAVE

Today was the launch of the Villanova CAVE. I’m a little confused about what CAVE stands for because in the opening remarks someone mentioned that it is “computer assisted virtual environment” but in all of the promotional materials about the CAVE it says that it stands for “CAVE automatic virtual environment”. In any case, it’s an 18′ x 10′ x 7.5′ high room with a configurable ceiling, where, with a pair of special glasses, you are immersed in a virtual experience, which could mean exploring areas closed to the public in Eastern State Penitentiary, walking through a plaza in Mexico, or looking inside a falcon mummy. And not just any falcon mummy, OUR falcon mummy, which is why I was at the opening today.

Dr. Frank Klassner giving the opening remarks at the Villanova CAVE opening

Dr. Frank Klassner giving the opening remarks at the Villanova CAVE opening

We found out about the CAVE several months ago, thanks to Dr. Michael Zimmerman, who introduced Lynn Grant and I to his colleague Dr. Frank Klassner. Dr. Klassner is the director of the CAVE, and is also a professor of Computing Sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology (CEET) at Villanova. Dr. Klassner was looking for collaborators who might be interested in exploring objects, places, or spaces using the CAVE. We had recently CT-scanned our falcon mummy, and offered to share that data with him.

After the opening remarks, we were allowed to enter the CAVE in groups of 15, where we put on the special glasses (which looked a lot like the 3D glasses you get in a movie theater) and we were shown some demos of the potential applications.

A glimpse inside the CAVE (we weren't really supposed to take pictures, not that they could really capture what we could see with the glasses anyway)

A glimpse inside the CAVE (we weren’t really supposed to take pictures, not that they could really capture what we could see with the glasses anyway)

They didn’t show the falcon mummy in my group, so I pulled the guy leading the demo aside (who turned out to be George Lacakes, Director of the Virtual Reality Laboratory at Rowan University), and put in a special request for the falcon. George told me that they hadn’t totally finished processing the CT-data because it needed a lot of work, so we couldn’t fully unwrap the falcon in the CAVE just yet, but we were still able to look at a portion of it (the CT-scan was captured in 2 different sections, so we were only looking at one) and peer inside to see the skeletal remains. I told Dr. Klassner that we’d just have to make a trip back once they finished processing all of the data, and he enthusiastically welcomed a return visit.

A section of the falcon mummy, viewed on George Lacake's computer, just to give you an idea of what the image looks like.

A section of the falcon mummy, viewed on George Lacakes’ computer, just to give you an idea of what the image looks like.

In addition to being able to explore objects and places through previously-captured data, the CAVE has a rover named Seymour (get it? because it helps you see more) which can capture images anywhere (like an archaeological site or the galleries of a museum) that can then be explored in the CAVE.

The development and construction of the CAVE was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Watch a time-lapse video of the CAVE being constructed, and read more about the CAVE here.


Conserving a 6500 year-old skeleton from Ur

No, he’s not Egyptian, and no, he’s not a mummy, but somehow this 6500 year-old skeleton made his way into the Artifact Lab, and we are working on conserving his remains.

Thanks to recent media attention, he has drawn visitors to the museum, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Fortunately for our visitors, he is on view In the Artifact Lab every day the museum is open, until we complete the conservation treatment, which will be sometime in the next few weeks.

Just to give you an idea of what you might see if you visit the lab in the upcoming weeks, here are some photos taken by Phil and Diana Monslow, a Welsh couple who visited the museum on Thursday and promptly emailed their photos to us that same day.

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton (with an Egyptian coffin from the New Kingdom in the background)


A detail of the remains from the side, showing wax on the surface, soil, and burlap (modern, used to help lift the fragile remains from the site) below

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Thanks Phil and Diana for your great shots!


Conserving Egyptian Collections, day 2

Day 2 of Understanding Egyptian Collections at the Ashmolean featured 11 speakers (including myself), and the papers covered a wide range of topics.

The front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum

The front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum

I didn’t take any photos during the talks, so I have less visual content to share for this post. For ease of sharing the information about the presentations, I’m going to list the talks here, with speakers names, titles, and brief remarks (all of the talks over the 2 days deserve way more attention than I give them here and in my previous post – hopefully a publication will result – see more about this below). Several of the talks had co-authors, but I’m only listing the co-authors names if they were present at the meeting.

  • “Evolving Attitudes: past and present treatment of Egyptian Collections of the Oriental Institute.” Alison Whyte, Associate Conservator, Oriental Institute. Alison shared many old archival photos which have helped conservators understand old restorations, and make decisions about how to revisit the conservation of objects that have been in their collection for a long time. Alison also shared the project of the guest curator Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer of the special exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth – Birds in Ancient Egypt“. Rozenn’s work included CT-scanning and making a 3D print of an eagle mummy, and 3D replicas of its skeletal remains. She brought a 3D print of the eagle mummy to show us, but unfortunately it got lost on her way to the conference along with the rest of her luggage! Let’s hope that it eventually turns up.
  • “Mummy case saved by LEGO: a collaborative approach to conservation of an Ancient Egyptian cartonnage.” Sophie Rowe, Conservator, and Julie Dawson, Senior Assistant Keeper, Conservation, Fitzwillliam Museum, University of Cambridge. LEGOI was familiar with this project due to the fact that it was prominently featured in the news last year. This project was a collaboration between conservators and engineering student David Knowles, who designed a structure to support a cartonnage coffin upside-down during treatment, and devised a plan to use LEGO structures to provide long-term support for the coffin from the interior. To the right is an image of the LEGO structure (it looks a little different from the LEGOs we’re all familiar with).
  • “The importance of technical analysis and research for the conservation and display of archaeological garments.” Anne Kwaspen, Conservator of the Archaeological Textile Collection, Katoen Natie. I had never heard of Katoen Natie before – it is a company based in Antwerp that has invested in collecting art, through a program called HeadquARTers. They have a collection of archaeological textiles from the art market and private collectors. Anne discussed the study and conservation of their Egyptian wool and linen tunics, and their approach to display.
  • “Problems and possibilities for the Petrie Museum’s pottery display.” Susanna Pancaldo, Senior Conservator, UCL Museums and Collections. Susanna spoke about recent upgrades to the pottery room at the Petrie Museum. Their pottery room has approximately 3400 objects on display in 36 cases, and was suffering from issues with light, extremes in relative humidity and temperature, lack of mounts and damaging mounts, lack of space, and outdated/minimal labels. In 2014 they received funding to make improvements, including new lighting, new interpretive information, the addition of an introductory showcase showing Petrie’s sequence dating technique, and to carry out conservation surveys and treatments, among other things.
  • “Innovations for the display of Dynastic textiles using existing designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Emilia Cortes, Conservator, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Emilia’s presentation focused on the remounting of Egyptian textiles on exhibit to allow for easier access. She showed how she was able to modify existing mounts for elaborate, intricate objects, including this incredible floral collar from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache. Her retrofits included the innovative use of food-grade silicone for preventing movement of objects on exhibit.
  • “King Menkaure in Motion: the metamorphosis of a Monolithic royal sculpture from the Old Kingdom.” Susanne Gansicke, Conservator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Susanne described the monumental task of moving their King Menkaure statue from one gallery to another within the Museum of Fine Arts. With 2 years lead time, they were able to do gamma radiography of the sculpture in the gallery to help prepare and make decisions about the move, which involved setting the statue on a lifting frame, with 12 wheels attached, and then moving it with the assistance of 2 lifts. It was a very thoughtful project and an impressive feat!
  • “On not exhibiting a corpse: the Mummy Chamber, Brooklyn Museum.” Lisa Bruno, Head Objects Conservator, Brooklyn Museum of Art. In preparation for the museum’s new “Mummy Chamber“, conservators at the Brooklyn Museum worked on 2 unwrapped mummies, Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet and an anonymous man. The anonymous man, who was methodically unwrapped in the late 1950s, with the procedures documented in the book Wrapped for Eternity, was rewrapped in the conservation lab for display. The decision was made not to display the remains of Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet due to his poor condition, and ultimately, because displaying his remains would mean displaying a corpse, not a mummy.
  • “Reflecting on Egyptian Pigments: the use of Fibre Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy (FORS) for pigment analysis at the Fitzwilliam Museum.” Jennifer Marchant, Antiquities Conservator, and Abigail Granville, Pigment Analyst, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Jennifer and Abigail discussed their use of FORS to analyze pigments using a FieldSpec 4 spectroradiometer, which measures in the UV/visible/near IR range. They are building their own reference library, and finding that it is useful as an initial non-invasive examination method, and may be used in the examination of varnishes and binding media as well.
  • “A case for keeping: the life and afterlife of ritual metal statuary in Ancient Egypt.” Deborah Schorsch, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Deborah spoke about examples of Egyptian metal statues in collections around the world that show evidence of reworking for various reasons, often for the purpose of the object serving a new ritual function, or removing details in order to retire objects. One example she spoke about at length was the copper and gold Hierakonpolis falcon in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This statue had 4 different phases, with new material being added in each phase of its life.
  • “Bringing it all together In the Artifact Lab: Conservation, research, display, interpretation.” (Me! I spoke about working on Egyptian material and mummies in a public space, and some of the unique interactions and investigations that we have carried out as a result of the working environment.)
  • “Ancient Worlds: Open data, mobile web, haptics, digital touch.” Stephen Devine, Digital Communications Officer, and Sam Sportun, Collection Care Manager/Senior Conservator, Manchester Museum. Stephen and Sam introduced us all to Haptic technology and how it is being used at the Manchester Museum to allow visitors to “handle” artifacts. They also spoke at length about the importance of mobile technology and the development of an app to allow visitors to explore and provide feedback about their Ancient Worlds exhibit.

Ashmolean Head of Conservation Mark Norman gave the closing remarks, and expressed their interest in producing a publication from the conference. All of the talks were also filmed, and the conference organizers are planning on making the talks available via iTunesU.

I also should mention that there were several posters at the conference, which were presented on a monitor as a slideshow, and the poster presenters were given ipads to share their “posters” during the breaks. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t have a chance to see several of the posters, so I’m hoping this content will be made available in the future as well!

It was a short, but very worthwhile trip to Oxford. I hope to have the opportunity to return soon.

Christ Church buildings as seen from Tom Quad

Christ Church buildings as seen from Tom Quad

Conserving Egyptian Collections, day 1

Today was day 1 of the conference Understanding Egyptian Collections: Innovative display and research projects in museums.

Before saying anything about the conference, I have to mention that I am staying in Christ Church, one of Oxford University’s largest and oldest colleges, and this morning, I had breakfast with someone very near and dear to our hearts at Penn.

pennYes, that’s right, it’s a picture of our very own William Penn, which is hung in the Great Hall (or Hogwart’s Hall to all of you Harry Potter fans out there), where breakfast is served each morning. Penn was educated at Christ Church.

Anyway, on to the conference! As promised, it was a full day of talks, many which focused on the new Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean Museum, and the conservation and architectural projects associated with their renovation. Liam McNamara, Assistant Keeper for Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the Ashmolean, and Stuart Cade of Rick Mather Architects, both spoke about the planning and decision-making involved in renovating the new galleries.

One of the new Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean, prominently featuring the shrine of King Taharqa

One of the new Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean, prominently featuring the shrine of King Taharqa

Mark Norman, Head of Conservation at the Ashmolean, spoke about 5 millennia of collections care in their collections, and specifically touched on examples of some fascinating ancient repairs and early treatments, which included the use of lots of wax, shellac, linseed oil, and cellulose nitrate.

Daniel Bone, Deputy Head of Conservation, reviewed the work that was required to display some large, complex objects using specific design concepts, including displaying 3 coffin lids vertically and mounting a set of stacked coffins within a single case.

A detail of the large case showing one of the vertically-displayed coffin lids

A detail of the large case showing one of the vertically-displayed coffin lids

Conference attendees admire the stacked coffins of Djeddjehutyiuefankh (Third Intermediate Period)

Conference attendees admire the stacked coffins of Djeddjehutyiuefankh (Third Intermediate Period)

Conservator Bronwen Roberts gave a presentation on the treatment of one of the coffin lids that is now displayed vertically.

Bronwen Roberts discusses the treatment on the large "green coffin" lid she treated to enable its display (coffin on far right)

Bronwen Roberts discusses the large “green coffin” lid she treated to enable its display (coffin on far right)

Finally, Jevon Thistlewood, Paintings Conservator at the Ashmolean, spoke about the investigations and treatments of their mummy portraits.

Just after lunch, the keynote speaker, Professor of Egyptology and Director of The Griffith Institute at Oxford, gave a dynamic talk entitled “Egyptology Beyond the Institutional Divide,” emphasizing the importance of collaboration between curators, conservators, Egyptians, and the importance of considering materials and landscape when interpreting objects.

The final two talks of the day focused on projects outside of the Ashmolean. Marie Svoboda, Associate Conservator of the Antiquities Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum presented the APPEAR Collaboration, which is a project and database designed to allow for a comparative study of ancient mummy portraits in collections around the world (of which the Ashmolean is an important participant). Finally, Dr. Mohamed Gamal Rashed spoke about the plans for the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) which are impressive, to say the least. The museum, which is slated to open in 2017, will have space for the display of 50,000 objects, and will include a grand staircase with a view to the Giza Pyramids at the top.

The sessions concluded with special tours of the new Egyptian galleries, and of the Discovering Tutankhamun exhibit, which features original records, photographs and drawings from Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, from the archives of Oxford’s Griffith Institute.

Stay tuned for details on Day 2 of the conference!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond…

While my colleagues are undertaking the exciting (and slightly daunting) task of conserving our 6500 year old Ubaid skeleton in the Artifact Lab, I am on my way to the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford to attend the conference “Understanding Egyptian Collections: Innovative display and research projects in museums.”

The conference will focus on innovative ways of conserving, displaying, understanding and interpreting Egyptian collections and will include presentations about the recent redevelopment of the Ashmolean’s Egyptian displays and conservation and research projects on Egyptian materials in museums around the world. I am speaking on the second day, about In the Artifact Lab, and about the experience of carrying out conservation on Egyptian mummies and objects in front of the public.

I’m looking forward to visiting the Ashmolean Museum for the first time, and for this opportunity to meet some of my colleagues and to hear first-hand about their exciting work. I will try to update the blog from the conference, but if you don’t hear from me, you’ll know I’m elbow-deep in conversations about conserving mummies and Egyptian artifacts!