Artifact Lab Conservator Molly Gleeson, just sitting there (with laptop)

by Lynn Grant
Last month, Artifact Lab Conservator Molly Gleeson was talking about her experiences being the public face (and hands, and body) of Conservation at the Penn Museum to PACA, a group of Philadelphia Area conservators. She said that one of the occasionally difficult things about work in the ‘fishbowl’ is that visitors expect to see her “doing something” (ie., interacting directly with the mummies or other artifacts in the lab) and she worries about disappointing them when she’s just sitting at the computer or thinking quietly. I’ve noticed the same thing on my stints in the Artifact Lab (although Molly is the Main Attraction, the other Penn Museum conservators all spend time in the lab when Molly’s off).

But In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies isn’t meant as performance art; we want to give our visitors a real look at how conservation happens and that includes the fact that we don’t spend 100% of our time actually laying hands on ancient artifacts. Before a conservator does touch any object she’s working on, she’ll spend a lot of time:
Examining the object carefully to see how is was made, how it was used, what’s happened to it over time, what needs fixing and (as importantly) what doesn’t.
Writing up her findings. Conservators document everything we see, think, or do with regards to an object. This is essential for various reasons: other researchers may be interested in our observations; if the treatment doesn’t go as planned, knowing what was done will make it possible to undo; if the treatment is a success, knowing what was done makes it possible to apply the same knowledge to other objects. I often find that this process really helps clarify treatment issues in my own mind.
Researching the artifact’s past and conservation research and treatments on other, similar artifacts. If you look at the books, blue binders in the seating corner of the Artifact Lab space or at some of these sites shown on the right sidebar, you’ll see examples of the kinds of resources we use every day. The Internet is a wonderful tool, as well. There are many online resources for conservators, especially a series of discussion groups where conservators all over the world pool their information about materials, treatment options, experience, etc.

And the ‘sitting time’ doesn’t end there. With a whole host of options for treatment at her fingertips, the conservators needs to spend time just thinking through all the possible results and repercussions of her active treatments. Many of the treatments carried out by conservators are not that difficult or complex (rolling a cotton swab across a surface isn’t rocket science) but the decision-making process behind choosing the treatment is why we need to spend years preparing to get into conservation training, years in that training, and continuing to learn every day of our working lives.

Conservators Julie Lawson (left) and Nina Owczarek, with intern Naomi Shohami (foreground) consulting over a laptop in the Artifact Lab.

• if you see the Artifact Lab conservator at the computer, she is probably still doing conservation. She could be: documenting her work; consulting other experts; researching web resources; writing a blog post(!); or even answering a question on our blog. Got a question? Post it here.
• If you see her talking to someone, she is probably still doing conservation. She could be: seeking advice or information from a colleague; teaching an intern; communicating a cool new finding; or asking them to contribute a blog post.
• If you see her just sitting or standing looking into thin air, she is probably still doing conservation. She could be: thinking about treatment options; deciding to consult a resource; considering the results of a recent treatment; or planning a blog post.

Of course, she could also be checking her Facebook page; calling a friend; making plans for lunch; or even just taking a rest because conservators are real people too and, even in the Artifact Lab, no-one is ‘on’ 100% of the time!