Preparing Artifacts for the Middle East Galleries

Non-Treatment Related Responsibilities of Conservation Professionals at The Penn Museum

By: and Tessa Young

March 20, 2018

Much is underway at the Penn Museum as staff prepares for the opening of our new Middle East Galleries. The exhibition will open to the public on Saturday, April 21, 2018, showcasing Near Eastern artifacts that explore early writing and record keeping in burial practices, transportation, agriculture, cooking, and the arts. In preparation for the exhibition, the Conservation Department is working in concert with the mount makers and Near East Section curators and collections staff to ensure all the artifacts chosen for the exhibition are stable for display. Conservators do this by employing techniques that honor each artifact’s unique history while also ensuring structural stability and long-term care. While many of these techniques include removing burial dirt or years of accumulated museum grime, re-adhering failing joins with archival adhesives, and filling losses, there is also an array of non-treatment responsibilities that conservation professionals implement to ensure the care of all artifacts. These responsibilities are as inherent to the field of conservation as treatment and include object movement, photographic and written documentation, research, and fabricating custom housing.

Artifacts flagged for the Middle East Galleries are brought to the conservation lab from storage. To relocate artifacts to and from storage, between Conservation Labs, and generally throughout the Museum, artifacts must travel by cart or basket. Objects are most at risk during transit, so safe transportation standards ensure that no one accidentally harms an object. Objects are stabilized on carts with soft bag weights and accompanied by at least two conservation professionals or interns as they travel throughout the Museum. Museum staff must be attentive to their surroundings, especially if there are obstacles that could disrupt the cart’s smooth journey. Sometimes carts have to be carefully lifted over unavoidable bumps, like elevator entrances. Staff follow pathways predetermined as safe for object movement. After safely making their way through the Museum, the objects are promptly brought to the Conservation Department’s photo studio for “BT” or before treatment photographs. BT photos document the condition of objects before anything is done to them; generally, the objects are documented from all sides and detail shots are taken as needed. Objects may also be photographed during treatment, or “DT,” for documentation or to show part of the treatment procedure. Once object treatment is complete, “AT” for after treatment or “PT” for post-treatment photographs are taken.

Pre-program intern Tessa Young carting objects behind the scenes.

Photographic documentation not only maintains a record of treatments which have been performed on an object, but also allows conservators to track the state of their treatments which, in turn, allows future conservators to determine how and if re-treatment should occur. There are photography standards within the profession, and photographs often include the object’s accession number and whether the photographs are taken before, during, or post treatment (e.g. “61-5-52 BT”), a scale bar, and a color card which is used to ensure proper exposure and color correction. Some institutions include additional indicators, like the date the photograph was taken. To ensure object visibility within the photograph, objects should fill the image as completely as possible and be placed within its proper orientation, if possible. Additionally, weights and other support systems may be used to bolster an object if it cannot stand on its own, or if it needs extra support in structurally weak areas.

Two photographs of a string of beads. Left, taken before treatment (“BT”). Right, taken after treatment (“AT”).

Photographs are edited, saved on the Museum’s photo archive, and uploaded to the Museum’s collection database.

Condition reports are a type of written assessment which help conservators document object features, appearance, and condition, develop treatment options, and determine possible risks. Condition reports are usually partitioned into two sections: description and condition. In the description section, the conservator discusses what the object looks like and how it was made. This includes identifying materials that are incorporated in the object using techniques like chemical spot tests or analysis and microscopic examination, and consulting colleagues and reference material to determine manufacturing techniques and normal usage. The condition section documents any damage or modifications such as scratches, accretions, previous repairs, etc., on the artifact. It is important for a conservator to determine which, if any, condition issues were caused during normal, contemporaneous use of the object as opposed to later damage, perhaps coming from burial.

A custom enclosure fabricated for wall cones. The box includes additional trays inside.

All artifacts that have undergone treatment return to the Museum’s storerooms in proper housing. Most of the time, this means housing the objects in archival plastic bags or containers which reduce museum dust accumulation or aid in maintaining collection organization. Sometimes, custom enclosures made of archival materials will be created for objects that have stability concerns. Typically, custom housing is fabricated with acid- and lignin-free corrugated blue board, hot glue, and padded with inert foams, such as Ethafoam® or Volara®. Accurate measurements are necessary to ensure that the artifact fits comfortably in the enclosure without being too snug or too loose. Creating custom boxes can require some creativity, as each object has its own unique requirements for storage.

Preventative measures taken by conservation professionals include object handling, photographic documentation, performing condition assessments, and creating custom enclosures, if necessary. Such non-treatment-related activities not only support the Conservation Department and Museum staff in preparing artifacts for the opening of the Middle East Galleries this April, but also ultimately ensure the safety of the artifacts, so they can continue to be admired by museum-goers and investigated by researchers to come!

Written by: Tessa Young and Alyssa Rina