The Other Artifact Lab

June 15, 2017

Penn Museum’s Conservation Department is a happening place these days, with lots and lots of projects going on simultaneously. The upcoming renovation of our signature Egyptian Galleries is providing a special set of challenges. Among them are the many monumental architectural pieces that have been on exhibition since the galleries opened in 1926. These will all have to be relocated prior to the renovation work (except the Sphinx; the construction crew will just have to work around him!). But, before these large pieces can be moved, their condition must be assessed and any treatment necessary to stabilize them prior to the move has to be carried out. It’s a big job in every sense of the words.

Figure 1Riggers carefully remove the limestone blocks to dismantle the Kaipure walls in December 2015. Photo by Emily Brown.

We got our head start on this when we deinstalled the south and east walls of the tomb chapel of Kaipure in December 2015 This monumental piece had to come down because we deemed its 90-year-old wooden support to be in danger from vibration generated a nearby construction project.

Figure 2 Near the end of the deinstallation. The white material on the faces of the blocks is a temporary consolidant to protect the paint during handling. The removed blocks are seen in the foreground on the pallets that would be used to store them. Photo by Emily Brown
Figure 3 A view of the 1926 wooden support structure that had held the wall. Its jury-rigged nature makes it clear why we needed to take down the wall before construction vibrations got too strong. Photo by Emily Brown
Figure 4 The treatment enclosure in the Lower Egyptian (Sphinx) Gallery, with the blocks stored on steel shelving, awaiting their next stage of conservation.. Photo by Tom Stanley.

In April 2017, Céline Chrétien joined our team as Project Conservator for the Kaipure work. Céline trained in sculpture conservation at Institut National du Patrimoine in France and has worked on painted Egyptian limestone architecture at the site of Athribis in Egypt. She has spent the last two months familiarizing herself with Kaipure and its previous treatments and developing a treatment protocol that will be applied to each of the 60+ blocks comprising the wall. Now she is being joined by two assistants who will help her carry out the treatments. If you’d like to watch them at work, they’ll be in the glass enclosure in the Sphinx Gallery most weekdays. But, please, don’t interrupt their work by asking questions – they have a lot to do and not much time to do it. You can take your questions to the original Artifact Lab on the third floor during its Open Window times (Weekdays 11-11:30 and 1:30-2; Weekends 12-12:30 and 3-3:30) or submit them to the Artifact Lab blog and we’ll be happy to answer them that way.

Figure 5 Project conservator Céline Chrétien at work in the Kaipure enclosure, with the Sphinx supervising in the background.

Penn Museum Conservation has recently been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Antiquities Endowment Fund of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). In addition to partially supporting the current conservation of the tomb chapel of Kaipure, the grant will enable digital documentation of architectural elements from the Palace of Merenptah, currently on exhibit in the same gallery. Planned building renovations will require the disassembly of these monumental pieces in the near future and the digital scanning will facilitate their reassembly in the revitalized and reimagined Egyptian Galleries to reopen after the renovations are completed.