Coming soon to a gallery near you: Conservation!

September 12, 2012

Two years ago in this forum, I wrote about Conservation’s move to temporary, smaller quarters, blithely saying “it may be two years before we get back to our proper spaces”.  Well, as anyone who’s had renovations done knows, things take longer than expected and it will probably be another two years before we get those wonderful new conservation labs we’re now actively planning.  By and large, we’ve adapted and enjoyed our new views and neighbors in the Mainwaring Wing.  Our biggest (literally) problem is how to conserve big objects.  Once something is much bigger than a bread box*, shoehorning it into our spaces becomes difficult and makes everyone’s life complicated.  Large objects are often left on carts which then have to be moved constantly to allow other conservators access to spaces around them.  I’ve occasionally worked on items in the adjacent storerooms, to the chagrin of long-suffering Keepers (sorry, Lucy, Bill, and Steve) who lost precious table space to conservation projects.  But we keep the storerooms at a cool 62⁰ degrees which is better for the artifacts but isn’t conducive to manual dexterity and you are very restricted in what chemicals you can use in shared spaces.

Pre-program intern Cassia Balogh works on a large architectural model in our current cramped lab space. The model is resting on a rolling cart.


So when I was asked about a year ago what we’d need to start a project conserving Egyptian mummies and related funerary goods, my immediate answer was “our new lab”, since much of the material was much larger than a breadbox.  With typical Museum ingenuity, the answer was not (as I’d hoped unrealistically) a wave of a magic wand to produce the new lab, or a resigned sigh and the acceptance that the project would be delayed, but a new initiative: an open conservation lab.

Building on an increasingly popular trend in museums around the world, we’ll be doing the conservation in public view.  This isn’t our first time at that particular dance (see http://www.penn.museum/blog/collection/conservation/april-2009-conservation-begins, among others) but, thanks to the Museum’s Exhibition Department, Egyptian Section, Development Office and with the generous support of Museum Overseer, John R. (Rick) Rockwell, this time we’ll be doing it in style.  A gallery space on the third floor, the Upper Baugh Pavilion, is currently being transformed into a conservation lab with a (plexi)glass wall to enable Museum visitors to watch the whole process of objects being examined, studied, treated, and rehoused.  The project, now titled In the Artifact Lab: conserving Egyptian mummies, will have its own conservator (although staff conservators Nina Owczarek, Julie Lawson, and myself will also be spending time in the ‘goldfish bowl’) and its own dedicated blog (look for our tab at the top of this page).

*for those too young for this reference, breadboxes are most commonly big enough to fit one or two average size loaves of bread—about 12 inches wide by 6 inches high and deep.  According to Wikipedia, the most common reference to breadboxes is the phrase “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” when trying to guess what some surprise object may be. This question was popularized by Steve Allen on the American game show What’s My Line? and remains a popular question in the parlor game 20 Questions.