More on Madame Rubinstein

Helena Rubinstein built her life and her wealth on beauty, so it should come as no surprise that she was attracted to this stunning Ptolemaic cartonnage funerary mask and it’s related pieces, which we are working on in the Artifact Lab.

Rubinstein was known as a great art collector (she bought pieces by the truckload, according to this article in the New Yorker) and she decorated her many homes with modern art, as well as artwork and antiquities from all over the world (she amassed an especially large collection of African art). When I found out that these cartonnage pieces in our collection had once been in the possession of the Madame, as she preferred to be called, I was hoping that I’d be able to find a photo of them on display in one of her homes.

Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some selections from her Africa and Oceania collection on display

Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some pieces from her Africa and Oceania collection. Image from “Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein: Extraordinary style, beauty, art, fashion” by Suzanne Slesin, 2003.

While I found many photos showing the interior of her homes, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the funerary mask in any of them. And it’s possible that she never had it, or the rest of the cartonnage, on display at all.

Based on letters found in our Archives, I found out that we ended up receiving these pieces as a gift from Mme. Rubinstein through the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The gallery owner, Julius Carlebach, acted as the intermediary for the donation, which was given to the museum while Dr. Rudolf Anthes was Curator of the Egyptian Section, under the directorship of Froelich Rainey. In his letter offering the cartonnage pieces to the museum, Carlebach noted that he was sorry that Madame Rubinstein had no further information about them.

But I did find something interesting in Froelich Rainey’s thank you note to Mme. Rubinstein.

UPMAA_Rainey_Page_2The letter is a little confusing because he refers to the mask as a mummy portrait, but I’m sure he’s talking about the cartonnage. As you can see, he mentions that the lower section would be included in the museum’s television program “What in the World”. “What in the World” was a Peabody Award-winning television program, where Rainey moderated a panel of experts trying to identity artifacts, while viewers were given clues to the answer (it ran for 14 years and by the early 1960s it was one of the oldest programs on television!). The episode featuring the cartonnage aired on May 23, 1953.

Unfortunately, as far as we know, only a few episodes of this show have survived, not including this 1953 episode. Those that we do have are now digitized and on the museum’s YouTube channel (follow this link to view them). Is there any way we might be able to find the one featuring Mme. Rubinstein’s gift? It seems unlikely, but I’d love to think that it is possible.

In the meantime, we’ll be doing our own investigations on these pieces right here in the Artifact Lab, and we’ll report on the blog as we learn more and make decisions on treatment.

Special thanks to Alex Pezzati, our Senior Archivist, for his help in locating these documents.

 

A gift from a late, great, beauty magnate

Some of the newest objects to come into the Artifact Lab are pieces of cartonnage which are related to this beautiful funerary mask, currently on exhibit in our Upper Egyptian gallery:

53-20-1A A funerary mask made of gilded cartonnage, currently on display in our Upper Egyptian gallery.

53-20-1A A funerary mask made of gilded cartonnage, currently on display in our Upper Egyptian gallery

Here are the pieces of cartonnage currently in the lab:

53.20.1bt01_compAnd here is a detail of the chest covering, adhered to fine linen with a black resinous material:

53.20.1bt03_chestcoveringAll of the pieces are unfortunately nailed down to the painted wooden (contemporary) support below. I’ve been working on documenting the cartonnage and getting the nails out, so that I can better evaluate the condition of these pieces.

I also have been doing some background research on these pieces, and found that, unlike most of the objects that I work on in the lab which are from excavations or which were collected early on in the museum’s history, this cartonnage assemblage was donated to us by cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein. Rubinstein, who is known for her wildly successful brand of cosmetics, and who, when she died, was one of the world’s richest women, was also an art collector. I’m not sure exactly how she wound up buying these pieces and then how they ended up here at the museum, but I’m heading over to the Archives now to see what I might learn there. More on this soon!

 

 

Conserving a 6500 year-old skeleton from Ur

No, he’s not Egyptian, and no, he’s not a mummy, but somehow this 6500 year-old skeleton made his way into the Artifact Lab, and we are working on conserving his remains.

Thanks to recent media attention, he has drawn visitors to the museum, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Fortunately for our visitors, he is on view In the Artifact Lab every day the museum is open, until we complete the conservation treatment, which will be sometime in the next few weeks.

Just to give you an idea of what you might see if you visit the lab in the upcoming weeks, here are some photos taken by Phil and Diana Monslow, a Welsh couple who visited the museum on Thursday and promptly emailed their photos to us that same day.

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton (with an Egyptian coffin from the New Kingdom in the background)

skeletondetail

A detail of the remains from the side, showing wax on the surface, soil, and burlap (modern, used to help lift the fragile remains from the site) below

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Thanks Phil and Diana for your great shots!

 

Conserving Egyptian Collections, day 2

Day 2 of Understanding Egyptian Collections at the Ashmolean featured 11 speakers (including myself), and the papers covered a wide range of topics.

The front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum

The front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum

I didn’t take any photos during the talks, so I have less visual content to share for this post. For ease of sharing the information about the presentations, I’m going to list the talks here, with speakers names, titles, and brief remarks (all of the talks over the 2 days deserve way more attention than I give them here and in my previous post – hopefully a publication will result – see more about this below). Several of the talks had co-authors, but I’m only listing the co-authors names if they were present at the meeting.

  • “Evolving Attitudes: past and present treatment of Egyptian Collections of the Oriental Institute.” Alison Whyte, Associate Conservator, Oriental Institute. Alison shared many old archival photos which have helped conservators understand old restorations, and make decisions about how to revisit the conservation of objects that have been in their collection for a long time. Alison also shared the project of the guest curator Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer of the special exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth – Birds in Ancient Egypt“. Rozenn’s work included CT-scanning and making a 3D print of an eagle mummy, and 3D replicas of its skeletal remains. She brought a 3D print of the eagle mummy to show us, but unfortunately it got lost on her way to the conference along with the rest of her luggage! Let’s hope that it eventually turns up.
  • “Mummy case saved by LEGO: a collaborative approach to conservation of an Ancient Egyptian cartonnage.” Sophie Rowe, Conservator, and Julie Dawson, Senior Assistant Keeper, Conservation, Fitzwillliam Museum, University of Cambridge. LEGOI was familiar with this project due to the fact that it was prominently featured in the news last year. This project was a collaboration between conservators and engineering student David Knowles, who designed a structure to support a cartonnage coffin upside-down during treatment, and devised a plan to use LEGO structures to provide long-term support for the coffin from the interior. To the right is an image of the LEGO structure (it looks a little different from the LEGOs we’re all familiar with).
  • “The importance of technical analysis and research for the conservation and display of archaeological garments.” Anne Kwaspen, Conservator of the Archaeological Textile Collection, Katoen Natie. I had never heard of Katoen Natie before – it is a company based in Antwerp that has invested in collecting art, through a program called HeadquARTers. They have a collection of archaeological textiles from the art market and private collectors. Anne discussed the study and conservation of their Egyptian wool and linen tunics, and their approach to display.
  • “Problems and possibilities for the Petrie Museum’s pottery display.” Susanna Pancaldo, Senior Conservator, UCL Museums and Collections. Susanna spoke about recent upgrades to the pottery room at the Petrie Museum. Their pottery room has approximately 3400 objects on display in 36 cases, and was suffering from issues with light, extremes in relative humidity and temperature, lack of mounts and damaging mounts, lack of space, and outdated/minimal labels. In 2014 they received funding to make improvements, including new lighting, new interpretive information, the addition of an introductory showcase showing Petrie’s sequence dating technique, and to carry out conservation surveys and treatments, among other things.
  • “Innovations for the display of Dynastic textiles using existing designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Emilia Cortes, Conservator, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Emilia’s presentation focused on the remounting of Egyptian textiles on exhibit to allow for easier access. She showed how she was able to modify existing mounts for elaborate, intricate objects, including this incredible floral collar from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache. Her retrofits included the innovative use of food-grade silicone for preventing movement of objects on exhibit.
  • “King Menkaure in Motion: the metamorphosis of a Monolithic royal sculpture from the Old Kingdom.” Susanne Gansicke, Conservator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Susanne described the monumental task of moving their King Menkaure statue from one gallery to another within the Museum of Fine Arts. With 2 years lead time, they were able to do gamma radiography of the sculpture in the gallery to help prepare and make decisions about the move, which involved setting the statue on a lifting frame, with 12 wheels attached, and then moving it with the assistance of 2 lifts. It was a very thoughtful project and an impressive feat!
  • “On not exhibiting a corpse: the Mummy Chamber, Brooklyn Museum.” Lisa Bruno, Head Objects Conservator, Brooklyn Museum of Art. In preparation for the museum’s new “Mummy Chamber“, conservators at the Brooklyn Museum worked on 2 unwrapped mummies, Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet and an anonymous man. The anonymous man, who was methodically unwrapped in the late 1950s, with the procedures documented in the book Wrapped for Eternity, was rewrapped in the conservation lab for display. The decision was made not to display the remains of Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet due to his poor condition, and ultimately, because displaying his remains would mean displaying a corpse, not a mummy.
  • “Reflecting on Egyptian Pigments: the use of Fibre Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy (FORS) for pigment analysis at the Fitzwilliam Museum.” Jennifer Marchant, Antiquities Conservator, and Abigail Granville, Pigment Analyst, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Jennifer and Abigail discussed their use of FORS to analyze pigments using a FieldSpec 4 spectroradiometer, which measures in the UV/visible/near IR range. They are building their own reference library, and finding that it is useful as an initial non-invasive examination method, and may be used in the examination of varnishes and binding media as well.
  • “A case for keeping: the life and afterlife of ritual metal statuary in Ancient Egypt.” Deborah Schorsch, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Deborah spoke about examples of Egyptian metal statues in collections around the world that show evidence of reworking for various reasons, often for the purpose of the object serving a new ritual function, or removing details in order to retire objects. One example she spoke about at length was the copper and gold Hierakonpolis falcon in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This statue had 4 different phases, with new material being added in each phase of its life.
  • “Bringing it all together In the Artifact Lab: Conservation, research, display, interpretation.” (Me! I spoke about working on Egyptian material and mummies in a public space, and some of the unique interactions and investigations that we have carried out as a result of the working environment.)
  • “Ancient Worlds: Open data, mobile web, haptics, digital touch.” Stephen Devine, Digital Communications Officer, and Sam Sportun, Collection Care Manager/Senior Conservator, Manchester Museum. Stephen and Sam introduced us all to Haptic technology and how it is being used at the Manchester Museum to allow visitors to “handle” artifacts. They also spoke at length about the importance of mobile technology and the development of an app to allow visitors to explore and provide feedback about their Ancient Worlds exhibit.

Ashmolean Head of Conservation Mark Norman gave the closing remarks, and expressed their interest in producing a publication from the conference. All of the talks were also filmed, and the conference organizers are planning on making the talks available via iTunesU.

I also should mention that there were several posters at the conference, which were presented on a monitor as a slideshow, and the poster presenters were given ipads to share their “posters” during the breaks. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t have a chance to see several of the posters, so I’m hoping this content will be made available in the future as well!

It was a short, but very worthwhile trip to Oxford. I hope to have the opportunity to return soon.

Christ Church buildings as seen from Tom Quad

Christ Church buildings as seen from Tom Quad

Conserving Egyptian Collections, day 1

Today was day 1 of the conference Understanding Egyptian Collections: Innovative display and research projects in museums.

Before saying anything about the conference, I have to mention that I am staying in Christ Church, one of Oxford University’s largest and oldest colleges, and this morning, I had breakfast with someone very near and dear to our hearts at Penn.

pennYes, that’s right, it’s a picture of our very own William Penn, which is hung in the Great Hall (or Hogwart’s Hall to all of you Harry Potter fans out there), where breakfast is served each morning. Penn was educated at Christ Church.

Anyway, on to the conference! As promised, it was a full day of talks, many which focused on the new Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean Museum, and the conservation and architectural projects associated with their renovation. Liam McNamara, Assistant Keeper for Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the Ashmolean, and Stuart Cade of Rick Mather Architects, both spoke about the planning and decision-making involved in renovating the new galleries.

One of the new Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean, prominently featuring the shrine of King Taharqa

One of the new Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean, prominently featuring the shrine of King Taharqa

Mark Norman, Head of Conservation at the Ashmolean, spoke about 5 millennia of collections care in their collections, and specifically touched on examples of some fascinating ancient repairs and early treatments, which included the use of lots of wax, shellac, linseed oil, and cellulose nitrate.

Daniel Bone, Deputy Head of Conservation, reviewed the work that was required to display some large, complex objects using specific design concepts, including displaying 3 coffin lids vertically and mounting a set of stacked coffins within a single case.

A detail of the large case showing one of the vertically-displayed coffin lids

A detail of the large case showing one of the vertically-displayed coffin lids

Conference attendees admire the stacked coffins of Djeddjehutyiuefankh (Third Intermediate Period)

Conference attendees admire the stacked coffins of Djeddjehutyiuefankh (Third Intermediate Period)

Conservator Bronwen Roberts gave a presentation on the treatment of one of the coffin lids that is now displayed vertically.

Bronwen Roberts discusses the treatment on the large "green coffin" lid she treated to enable its display (coffin on far right)

Bronwen Roberts discusses the large “green coffin” lid she treated to enable its display (coffin on far right)

Finally, Jevon Thistlewood, Paintings Conservator at the Ashmolean, spoke about the investigations and treatments of their mummy portraits.

Just after lunch, the keynote speaker, Professor of Egyptology and Director of The Griffith Institute at Oxford, gave a dynamic talk entitled “Egyptology Beyond the Institutional Divide,” emphasizing the importance of collaboration between curators, conservators, Egyptians, and the importance of considering materials and landscape when interpreting objects.

The final two talks of the day focused on projects outside of the Ashmolean. Marie Svoboda, Associate Conservator of the Antiquities Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum presented the APPEAR Collaboration, which is a project and database designed to allow for a comparative study of ancient mummy portraits in collections around the world (of which the Ashmolean is an important participant). Finally, Dr. Mohamed Gamal Rashed spoke about the plans for the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) which are impressive, to say the least. The museum, which is slated to open in 2017, will have space for the display of 50,000 objects, and will include a grand staircase with a view to the Giza Pyramids at the top.

The sessions concluded with special tours of the new Egyptian galleries, and of the Discovering Tutankhamun exhibit, which features original records, photographs and drawings from Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, from the archives of Oxford’s Griffith Institute.

Stay tuned for details on Day 2 of the conference!