Conservation at the Penn Museum: the next generation

Our department temporarily gained a member last week, when aspiring conservator Jessica Schwartz returned to spend an afternoon with us.

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon shows Jessica an RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) file of a seal impression from Ur.

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon shows Jessica an RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) file of a fragment of a jar stopper from Ur. The seal impression is so worn, and RTI revealed that it actually has 2 different impressions on it.

Jessie, a 6th-grader from Atlanta, has been interested in archaeology for as long as she can remember, but after seeing us working In the Artifact Lab two summers ago, she redirected her energy to pursuing archaeological conservation. There aren’t many opportunities for 12-year olds to gain experience in conservation, so we thought that if she spent some time with us, she’d get a taste of what we do on a day-to-day basis.

The first time she worked with us, last summer, we spent some time looking at our Predynastic mummy Bruce, using our microscopes to identify materials, and making scarab amulet impressions, and she wrote about all of this on the blog, which you can find by following this link.

Last week she came for a return visit (her family was here for the opening of our new exhibition, Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, & Gold in Ancient Panama) and she kept pace with all of the activities of the afternoon, including discussing my ongoing treatment of Pinahsi, a New Kingdom mummy (she had a good eye for picking out where I had repaired the textile shroud!) and reviewing radiographs of some of our animal mummies.

Jar of dirty cotton swab tips

Jar of dirty cotton swab tips

One of the first questions Jessica asked me when she came into the lab was, “what is that container full of little bits of cotton for?”. I’m so glad she asked (it’s a cotton swab disposal jar), because it gave me the idea to teach her one of the most important skills for a conservator to have – rolling your own cotton swab! We make our own swabs for cleaning objects because it allows us to have more control over the size and shape of the swab and the amount of cotton, and it’s also a lot cheaper. Jessica was so pleased with learning this new technique – I told her it would take her far!


Jessie with a successfully-rolled swab

Jessie with a successfully-rolled swab

After working in the Artifact Lab for a bit, we went downstairs to our new digital x-ray lab* to review some animal mummy x-radiographs. I x-rayed the animal mummies just before Jessie’s visit, so this was an opportunity for us to learn from the radiographs together. (*We are super excited about our new digital x-radiography equipment and we are just starting to use it to examine objects in our collection. I have been meaning to write a post just about the equipment and some of the things it has already allowed us to do, so look for this in the near future.)

One of the mummies we x-rayed was this ibis mummy, which our graduate intern
Alexis North treated over the summer. As far as we know, this mummy had never been x-rayed before, so we really had no idea what the radiograph would reveal. Here are the 2 views we captured:

X-ray image taken from the top down. Exposure information: 30kV, 1mA, 6 seconds

X-radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 30kV, 1mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.


X-ray image taken from the side. Exposure information: 35 kV, 1mA, 6 seconds

X-radiograph taken from the side. Exposure information: 35 kV, 1mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

Both views clearly show that there are bird remains inside, and the side view shows the characteristic long, curved beak of the ibis really well. The radiographs also show the textile wrappings and even the materials in the storage support! But focusing on the bird remains, they seemed a little…sparse. So we consulted with the museum’s zooarchaeologist and teaching specialist Dr. Kate Moore. She brought us into her lab and showed us a complete heron skeleton (she doesn’t have an ibis skeleton, but a heron is very comparable in terms of size and the shape of the bones).


Dr. Kate Moore (far right) shows Tessa and Jessica a heron skeleton

Here is the complete skeleton, which Kate piled up on the table so that we could get a sense of how much volume those bones take up. After seeing these bones, we took another look at the x-radiograph, and realized that our ibis mummy only contained about half the bones of a complete skeleton (for starters, the pelvis is missing completely).

Heron bones

Heron bones with sharpie marker used for scale.

As you can see, we had a full afternoon, and we learned a lot together. Jessie had to fly back to Atlanta today to turn her attention back to her current full-time job, being a sixth grader, but we look forward to her next visit. While college, and conservation graduate school, are a bit far off in the future, we can already see that if Jessie ultimately decides to pursue conservation, she’s going to excel!


Art conservation students visit the Artifact Lab

Last Saturday, I was pleased to give a special tour of the Artifact Lab to a group of students from the University of Delaware.

Group photo in the Artifact Lab

This group was made up of graduate students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Graduate Program in Conservation (WUDPAC), a pre-program intern currently working in at Winterthur, and undergraduates majoring in art conservation at the University of Delaware.

Several students gathered for our open window session

They arrived during our open window session, and then we continued the tour afterward, which gave me the opportunity to present some of my ongoing work and experiences working in an open lab. While I speak about my work every day, discussing my work with students who are learning some of the latest treatment techniques and analytical methods, and who have this information fresh in their minds, was incredibly useful for me. Since their visit, I have received some generous offers of sharing material samples and articles. I know that visiting the Artifact Lab must have been a treat for them, but I think it was equally rewarding for me!