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!



  • Greg

    When you work to stabilize a piece constructed with materials like cartonnage which contain components not commonly in use today (I’m thinking papyrus and various types of organic pigments and adhesives) do you attempt to recreate these original materials? If there are modern substitutes which are more stable and easy to obtain, how do you “predict” how the objects will handle these treatments over time, considering that they have lasted two millennia with the original organic components?

    • mgleeson

      hi Greg. When we treat artifacts, we typically use materials that are compatible with, but distinct from the original materials. This way there is no confusion as to what is original and what is not, and it also makes our treatments reversible or “retreatable” in the future. We predict how the objects will handle the materials we use in our treatments based on scientific testing and artificial aging of these materials. We can also look back on past treatments done by archaeologists in the field and by conservators in the past, which can be really informative. We sometimes try to recreate the original materials if we are trying to understand construction or technology, or if we want to test treatment materials before applying them on the object. Thanks for your good questions!

  • mgleeson

    hi again, I don’t know why this is only showing up now, but thanks for re-posting! I responded to your more recent comment.

  • mgleeson

    Hmmm…seems as if I’m having trouble with my responses not showing up either. I posted a long response and now I don’t see it! Let’s try this again. I don’t think that Mme. Rubinstein was specifically a collector of Egyptian art. I know she was a big collector of African art, but also of ancient Greek and Roman pieces, so Egyptian objects definitely could have been included in her acquisitions. Just looking through the book “Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein: Extraordinary style, beauty, art, fashion” by Suzanne Slesin I didn’t see any other Egyptian pieces in the photographs or read any references to her collecting these things. As far as preservation of the linen goes, I think the reason it’s so well preserved is because it was never treated with anything. Additives like resins, oils, wax, dyes actually can contribute significantly to deterioration. In fact, we’ve seen this kind of deterioration on some objects here in the lab, including our falcon mummy, which is wrapped in natural (undyed) and dyed linen. The dyed linen is significantly more deteriorated. The excellent preservation of the undyed linen is due to the burial environment – dry, stable climate, and free of pests that would have liked to eat the fabric.