Prep-work for In the Artifact Lab

September 24, 2012

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Conservators work hard to prevent things from deteriorating, but we occasionally like to destroy things (gasp!). Maybe it’s because we have devoted so much of our lives to saving things, or maybe it’s because we normally have to tend to such minute details so carefully that it would make most peoples’ heads explode, or maybe it’s because we just like to let loose a little bit after all of that meticulous work. Actually, creating replicas and making them deteriorate really helps us understand why museum objects degrade and how to help them, so it’s often part of the job.

Creating replicas for artifical aging

In any case, I’ll tell you that it’s been a lot of fun to start a new job and in the first week, get to do a little damage, so to speak. In this case, I’m talking about preparations for In the Artifact Lab. As some of you may know by now, this new exhibit will showcase a fully-functioning conservation lab (see Lynn’s previous post with a preview), accompanied by a variety of engaging interpretive materials to allow visitors to learn more about Egyptian materials and conservation. One of the exciting interactive items is a ProScope station. A ProScope is a handheld digital microscope, and in this exhibit, it will be positioned in a way to allow visitors to examine prepared slides of various “fragments” representative of materials that we’ll be examining in the lab. This week I have been helping the exhibits team prepare these slides by creating mock fragments of cartonnage, papyrus, linen mummy wrapping, and copper.

This is where the destruction comes in-I prepared duplicates of each sample and then “aged” one of each by dipping, soaking and splashing with various corrosive materials including vinegar, Windex and coffee grounds-essentially the opposite of what I’ll be doing in the next year as a conservator on this project.

By comparing the new and the aged samples, visitors will get a better understanding of these materials, how they deteriorate, and of some of the challenges that conservators face when caring for objects made from similar materials in the lab.

Sample fragments of aged and unaged cartonnage, papyrus and linen “mummy wrappings”

Wondering exactly what some of these materials are and what they look like? Curious about the ProScope? In the Artifact Lab opens on September 30, so come check it out, and stay tuned here for ongoing posts about our work to put the finishing touches on the exhibit and getting started on the conservation treatments.