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!

We aren’t making mummies…or are we?

One question I hear occasionally from visitors in the Artifact Lab is “are you making mummies?”. I always think that this is a funny question – there is one thing that we have plenty of at the museum, and that is objects in our collection. There is no need for us to make our own…or is there?

What's going on here? What could these possibly be for?

What’s going on here? What could these possibly be for?

We do sometimes make mock-ups of artifacts, for testing purposes or for exhibit or educational use, and I wrote a bit about this in my very first blog post on the Penn Museum blog, way back in September.

And now I can no longer say that the museum is not making mummies. While we may not be making mummies in the Artifact Lab, we do have someone on staff who has been known to make a mummy, or two, in his career. This someone is Ben Neiditz. And rather than saying much more about this, I thought I’d ask him a few questions, and post our Q&A on the blog. So read on to learn more about Ben’s fascinating, and super creative, work.

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

Hi Ben. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and what do you do at the museum?

I am a sculptor, designer, and builder and I work in the Exhibits department designing and building a range of different exhibit elements including casework, interactives, furniture, and artifact replicas.

How did you get into making artifact replicas?

Well, I studied sculpture and I am still making artwork outside of the museum, but my first replica for the museum was for the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit. We were prevented at the last minute from displaying the two mummies that were the centerpiece of the show and so I created two replicas. As luck would have it, I had been making desiccated corpses as part of my own sculptural practice and so I was well prepared to make replica mummies in the required time frame (very fast!). Most recently I made a set of replica codices for the exhibit Maya 2012: Lords of Time and I have just finished making another replica mummy – including a set of desiccated organs – that will be used in educational workshops about Egyptian mummification. 

Tell us more about this recent mummy project! How did you make the mummy and what materials did you use?

I started by casting a skull: I covered it in paper mache, let it dry and then cut off the paper shell and reattached the parts.

The "skeleton" of Ben's mummy

The “skeleton” of Ben’s mummy

I used skeletal and anatomical diagrams, photos of real mummies and my own body as reference for scale, proportion and texture. For the body, I started with a wood armature that I then “fleshed out” with paper and cardboard.

The body of the mummy taking shape

The body of the mummy taking shape

I coated the whole thing in paper mache and then I painted and textured the exterior with celluclay, dirt and wood glue to get the desired skin texture.

The "skin" in process of being applied (left) and a detail of the evisceration on the mummy's left side (right)

The “skin” in process of being applied (left) and a detail of the evisceration (right)

Do you have anything else interesting to share? What was the most interesting thing you learned from this?

I went to check out the mummification workshop in which the aforementioned mummy is used. This particular iteration of the workshop was being presented to a group of 6th graders and it was great! The kids get to poke brains made from jello and learn all about the system of religious beliefs that surrounds Egyptian mummification. I learned that in order to be admitted to the afterlife, your heart is put on a scale balanced against a feather. If your heart is too heavy, indicating a life lived wrongly, it is devoured by a crocodile-lion-hippopotamus and you are denied entry into the underworld.

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

The final product-the complete mummy with all of his organs and a scarab amulet placed on his chest.

Thanks Ben! What a cool project. The mummy looks great, and as Ben mentioned, is already being put to use for workshops here at the museum. The mummy has been dubbed “Mr. Ulysses Penn” (or Mr. U Penn). He will be featured in the next “Mummy Makers” workshop, which will take place on June 5th.