The Artifact Lab is 8 years old!

The Artifact Lab as it appeared in 2012, shortly before its opening.

“Welcome to the Artifact Lab”. It was 8 years ago, on September 30, 2012, that I first said that phrase, when we opened our new initiative to the public. Described then as “Part exhibition, part working laboratory, In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies is a glass-enclosed conservation lab set up in the Museum’s third floor Special Exhibitions Gallery”, the Artifact Lab is still with us, albeit with some changes. It’s been on my mind a lot the last few months – this summer Molly Gleeson and I presented a professional paper titled “Surviving the Seven-Year Itch: Reflections of Conservators on Display at the Penn Museum” as part of a special session on public conservation labs. In preparing for that, I thought a lot about the last 7+ years, and the process was especially poignant as the current pandemic had led to a hiatus in our public work. Well, now we’re going to be back – slightly modified for the new normal – so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts.

By pretty much any metric, the Artifact Lab has been a success.  Originally planned as a two-year exhibition, it has been extended, revamped, extended again, revamped again, and will soon be starting yet another phase.   

Project Conservator Molly Gleeson chatting with a family during an Open Window session.

We have, thanks to a thoughtful design from our talented exhibition team, defied expectations and managed to have a public lab where we could interact with visitors and yet still get an amazing amount of conservation done while working in our hi-tech fishbowl.  Most of us enjoy a chance to talk about the work we love with visitors, although keeping the lab staffed over weekends and holidays has been a challenge at times. 

Some of the interactives our design included. Top left: a Proscope station where visitors could look at prepared slides using a digital microscope; top right: a screen where visitors can see what the conservators see through their microscopes; bottom left: a view showing the large screen usually showing a slide show about our work; bottom right: the big screen being used by Molly Gleeson to illustrate her talk to a group of young visitors

Since the lab opened, we have spoken to over 40,000 visitors, which amounts to approximately 3000 hours of talking. We have lectured to and hosted university classes, hosted and created programming for over 500 summer campers, presented on our work at various venues, and visited several local schools for career days. The outreach has been carried out by 17 conservators, 7 curriculum interns*, 22 pre-program interns, four high school interns, and five Penn-affiliated non-conservator colleagues. 

*Training to become a conservator is an arduous process.  In order to be accepted to a graduate degree, one usually needs some hands-on experience working with conservators.  We refer to those folks as ‘pre-program interns’; it used to be that they were often volunteers but as we endeavor to increase diversity and inclusion in our profession, we now focus on paid internships.  ‘Curriculum interns’ are those who have been accepted into a graduate training program and are required to spend their summers and usually part of their final year getting experience working in a conservation lab.  In recent years, we have happily participated in the Museum’s high school internship program; introducing young minds to the world of conservation. 

A nearly full house in the Artifact Lab, including two conservators, a curriculum intern, and a pre-program intern.

When the Museum closed due to the pandemic and we thought it would be for just two weeks, our first reaction was ‘whew, a weekend off’, but we soon came miss our interaction with visitors.  Now that the Museum has reopened, we’ve been thinking of how best to adapt to the new situation while maintaining some of the things that has made the Artifact Lab special.  Starting October 6, the gallery where the Artifact Lab is located will be closed to the public on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; although the Visible Storage area of Ancient Egypt: Discovery to Display will remain open for visitors.  Thursday through Sunday, visitors will be able to enter the Gallery where the Artifact Lab is located, see what’s in process, see the exhibits, slide show and interactives but there will not be conservators working in the space during public hours. 

Conservator Alexis North at the Open Window, pre-pandemic.

For the foreseeable future, we will not be having our signature ‘Open Window’ sessions where we engaged with visitors for two half-hour periods each day.  Instead, we will encourage visitors to ask their questions via our blog or Twitter account and we promise to answer as fully as ever we would at the windows.  We will also, in mid-October, be launching a weekly virtual series called “Conservation Confidential”.  Each week, one of the conservators or interns will post a short presentation on a topic of conservation interest.  Viewers will be able to ask questions in real time via Facebook or, if watching archived versions, submit questions via the blog/Twitter.  We’re still working out some of the details and technology but keep an eye out for this.  If there are topics you’re especially interested in, we’d love to hear from you.   

Over the last eight years, the Artifact Lab has been a huge asset both for the Museum and for our department.  Its popularity and the increased visibility of conservation within the Museum has been instrumental in growing our staff from 4 to 9 conservators.   It’s also given the  Museum another human face, a place where visitors can regularly talk to Museum staff.  Through our discussions with visitors we have learned a great deal that often contradicted our assumptions about what visitors wanted.  We are using these insights to inform exhibit planning. The Artifact Lab has also placed a strain on all the Conservation staff as we strove to maintain a constant presence.  I want to thank everyone who has helped over the years: the visitors who ask engaging and thoughtful questions (especially all those 6- and 7-year-old experts); our brilliant exhibition staff; the housekeepers who clean the nose prints off the glass; our AV specialist who keeps our interactives interacting; Security, who keep a careful eye on us at all times; our Executive Team who never fail to appreciate our work; and –most of all –everyone who has spent time in the fishbowl. 

What does “working from home” look like for conservators?

Working from home – this is not a foreign concept for many of us since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the US earlier this year. But how do conservators – museum staff who regularly work in close contact with museum artifacts – work from home?

It turns out, there are a lot of things we can do. We are, after all, creative people, and adaptable, and often experienced in working in less-than-ideal circumstances. We also always have a backlog of job-related tasks that are easy to push aside while we are working at the Museum, like labeling and archiving photos and improving our documentation standards. To give you a glimpse into how some of us in the Conservation Department have been working from home, I asked several of my colleagues to weigh in:

From conservator Julie Lawson:

As was the case for many, working from home began with a “crash course” in navigating new (to me) adventures in virtual meetings, guest-lecturing, remote desktops, and remote IT colleagues. The pause in an often relentless exhibit schedule has given me a chance to catch up on some old record-keeping, and many current resources that would likely have been missed such as international web presentations of conservation projects. More lately, I’ve been engaged in what it means to be personally anti-racist, the impacts of racism on museums fields and individuals, and what I can and should do about it. Listening online to Black museum directors, curators, and archaeologists, for instance, is giving me a new and necessary perspective to take to work in an anthropology museum and beyond.

Of course, a thread running through the last several months has been presentations, documents, protocols, questions and updates on Covid-19’s effect on our and other museums, the Penn campus and life in general. To take breaks from all that and take advantage hours spent not commuting to the Museum, I’ve been expanding my garden beds and trying out new things like growing 6 foot tall sunflowers from seeds, followed by some outdoor ‘conservation treatment’ with a recycled spray bottle of homemade insecticidal soap solution.  Turns out that spotted lantern fly nymphs are a major agent of garden plant deterioration!  

A goldfinch perched atop one of Julie’s impressive sunflowers

From conservator Tessa de Alarcón:

Like everyone I have been entering old treatment reports into KE EMu, our collections database, and doing a lot of data clean-up. Some of the data clean-up included making sure X-ray images in EMu have the proper metadata (the red arrows in the images below indicate a metadata fix that I made to one image). Without this fix, these images were not pushing to the public website properly.

Same image, before (left) and after (right) a metadata fix

Another project I worked on from home was processing some RTI data. In my examination of this ancient Egyptian bronze plaque (E11528), I observed that it has modern paint over the ancient inscription. In weighing a decision about whether or not to remove the modern paint, I told the curators that I could do RTI on the plaque to better understand how legible the inscription would be without the paint. The RTI images do seem to show where the paint does not line up well with the actual incised inscription.

An RTI image of the bronze plaque, E11528, showing the object’s surface topography

From conservator Julia Commander:

Working from home is a great opportunity to dive into materials from related fields – even aerospace design! Webinars and videos like this one, showing how to trim carbon fiber components with an oscillating multitool, help as we develop protocols for making large-scale interfaces for Ancient Egyptian column drums.

Some of our family members don’t care what we’re working on, as long as we can do it from home!

From conservator Jessica Betz Abel:

During the quarantine, I’ve mostly been striving to make perfectly symmetrical Hungarian pizzelles using my grandmother’s handwritten recipe. When I wasn’t gently tapping off the excess crust around the sides of the pizzelles, I spent the early part of the summer on my presentation concerning the desalination of Egyptian limestone using agarose gel for the American Institute of Conservation‘s 2020 virtual annual meeting.

I’ll take the pizzelle, but I’ll pass on flaking limestone.

From Head Conservator Lynn Grant:

During the time the Museum was closed, I got to go in several times to check on the condition of the artifacts on display and in storage (this was just an extra check: our Security staff did regular rounds all through the time we were closed). With lights off to protect the artifacts, it was a spooky flashlight experience in places.  

Lynn’s flashlight illuminates a case of ancient Egyptian animal mummies in the Museum’s Secrets and Science gallery

Of course, the Penn Museum is now open to the public, and many of us are getting back into a routine that takes us to work in person several days a week! So we have less time for baking and gardening, but we are happy to be back with the collection and we look forward to continuing to update the blog with our ongoing work.