The right tools for the (monumental) job

Greetings from the Penn Museum’s Conservation Lab Annex (CLA)! You may remember from our first post the scale (large!) and types of objects we are going to be working on over the next few years. We are mostly working on architectural elements like doorways, windows, and columns that were part of the palace complex of the Pharaoh Merenptah, who ruled Egypt from Memphis from 1213–1203 BC. To put things in perspective, the doorway we are currently working on is over 12 ft tall and many of its fragments weigh hundreds of pounds. That means we have had to add a few new tools that are not typically found in a museum’s conservation lab. Most recently we’ve started utilizing a lot of new tools including a forklift, a gantry, and large-scale sandboxes.  

  • Forklift – A few weeks ago, the whole Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries Team attended a certification workshop in forklift operation. The certification course taught us the basics in how to safely operate our electric forklift. Having our own forklift onsite allows us to easily move some of the large stone fragments in and out of the lab, reorganize the layout of the warehouse to create space for rigging and lifting, and organize all of the Merenptah Palace pieces into one area.   
Egyptian Section Curator Dr. Jennifer Wegner smoothly maneuvering the forklift during our training session.
  • Gantry – At CLA we have a gantry crane in the warehouse which allows us to rig and lift some of the heaviest objects and fragments. This is especially important when we are trying to dry-fit pieces together before making more permanent joins. There are lots of different ways to rig or strap a fragment for lifting, but we’ve found that using shorter straps with a choke hitch is the safest way to lift our artifacts. In the photo below you can see that’s exactly what we’ve done. Once we have the straps secured and fully supporting the object, we begin to slowly lift, making sure the straps settle and don’t slip or re-adjust, dropping the object.  
CLA team using the gantry to lift part of the lintel from Doorway 1.
  • Sandbox – Sandboxes are often used in conservation to support objects during joining. Using a sandbox, we can place an object inside at whatever angle we need to in order to support the object on top with nothing but the weight of gravity. At CLA, our objects are quite large, so we are using old shipping crates and converting them into large sandboxes to accommodate our needs. In the photos below you can see the process of moving a fragment into the sandbox and then in the second photo you can see that fragment has been placed in such a way that it can now support the weight of the second, joining fragment on top of it. The blue tape serves as a guide to help us know exactly how the two pieces fit together once we have applied the adhesive and are ready to do the final joining. 
CLA team moving part of the lintel from Doorway 1 into a sandbox.
Fragments of Doorway 1 lintel being dry-fit together in the sandbox prior to joining.
  • Dremel – Lastly, and on a much smaller scale, we’ve been using a few different power tools. The most helpful so far has been the Dremel. While the Dremel is not a completely foreign tool to many conservators, it is most often used for making mounts or sanding fills and/or cross-sections. In this case we are using the Dremel to cut and remove all restoration pins that have become heavily corroded over the years, expanded, and are causing damage to the stone.   
Corroded ferrous pins from a previous restoration being cut and removed from Doorway 1 fragments.

As with any job, having the right tools is really important, for success and safety! We look forward to continuing to share the progress we’ve made on this project from our home offices, as we continue to work from home.

Cross-Campus Conservation Collaboration!

by Adrienne Gendron

Professional conservators generally specialize by material type. All the conservators at the Penn Museum specialize in objects, which includes a wide variety of materials from stone and ceramics to leather and wood. However, occasionally materials come across our desks that fall outside our areas of expertise. The Penn Museum recently acquired twelve Indian paintings on paper which need to be hinged so they can be safely handled by researchers. Because paper is a separate sub-specialty of conservation, we called on our friends at the Steven Miller Conservation Lab at the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts to help us with this task. This is not the first time we have taken advantage of our book and paper conservation colleagues right here on campus – follow this link to read about a recent treatment carried out in their labs on a parchment scroll.

In the case of the hinging project, our Penn Libraries conservation colleagues came to us – a couple weeks ago, Elizabeth McDermott, Tessa Gadomski, and Sarah Reidell visited our lab to provide a workshop on how to properly hinge paper objects for display.

Penn Museum conservators and interns listening to Liz and Tessa give instruction.

Hinging is a process in which small strips of paper are carefully adhered to the back of a work of art on paper in order to secure it within a window mat. It results in a strong and secure housing solution that ensures the safety of the object for storage and display.

One of the twelve works on paper that needs to be hinged (2017-22-13).

The most common and secure method of hinging is called a T hinge, which is composed of two strips of Japanese tissue paper. First, a strip of paper is carefully cut to size and a small amount of reversible adhesive is applied. Then, the strip is applied to the back of the top edge of the work and allowed to dry under weights.

The first strips in place along the top edge of a sample object.

Next, the work is flipped face-up and positioned on its backing mat. This is the trickiest part of the process, as the work must be perfectly positioned so that when the window mat is closed, it appears centered. Then, a second strip is adhered over the first strip and onto the backing board to secure the work in place.

The second strips applied over the first strips and onto the backing board, securing the work in place.

Because conservation is a small field, people often call on colleagues to for advice when it comes to different areas of expertise. We’re excited to apply our new skill to the twelve Indian paintings to ensure their long-term safety and preservation. Hinging can be a tricky business, but after our workshop we’re up for the challenge!

The first Indian work on paper we successfully hinged using techniques from the workshop (2017-22-20). When executed properly, hinges can allow a work to be flipped up so the back can be viewed.

Cleaning – it’s complicated

by Lynn Grant

Not that long ago, a museum colleague was heard to say “I suppose cleaning counts as conservation” in a doubtful voice. We conservators found this both appalling and amusing as cleaning is a huge part of what we do. And knowing when and how to clean is a big part of our education. Using the wrong methods can permanently damage an artifact. Those of us who finished our conservation training more than ten years ago mostly relied on the rule of thumb ‘try gentlest methods first’. But there have been rumblings in the field about better ways to do things, with terms like Modular Cleaning Systems and Gel Cleaning drifting by. Clearly this was something we needed to know more about.

Richard Wolbers (in blue polo shirt) demonstrates basics of cleaning gel production to Museum conservators and interns

Fortunately for us, one of the ‘rock stars’ of gel cleaning research, teaches nearby at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Richard Wolbers, who describes himself as a ‘Cultural Materials Engineer’ to reflect his interest in applying new ways of thinking about conservation issues, is Associate Professor at WUDPAC and has graciously lent us his expertise on specific projects previously (one example here). But now that we have so many conservators and interns working on different projects and with a major campaign to reinstall our Egyptian Galleries after 90 years about to start, we asked Richard to give us a two-day workshop on the basics of gel cleaning. This was an abbreviated version of week-long workshops he gives around the world but we certainly squeezed a lot of learning into two jam-packed days.

The conservators and interns get into gel (and emulsion) production!

Richard has basically turned much traditional conservation ‘wisdom’ on its head: looking deeply into the complex interactions among surfaces, dirt, and cleaning materials and using his observations to develop new approaches to cleaning. Even gels aren’t the new frontier anymore; custom made emulsions may allow conservators to use water and solvents in combination when the surface is easily damaged by them when used in liquid applications. Many of the techniques and materials that Richard uses come from the cosmetics and food industries. In fact, as we listened to his explanations, I kept thinking of the Molecular Gastronomy movement. Some of our new cleaning tools have as much relation to our old way of doing things as this does to your grandma’s chicken soup:

Chicken soup spheres (http://jordancaterers.blogspot.com/2013/07/chicken-soup-spheres.html)

It’s a brave new world for conservation cleaning….

Symposium follow-up

Thanks to the hard work of so many individuals, including our incredible speakers, I think I can safely say that our symposium last month was a smashing success. Nina Owczarek wrote a nice summary post on the Museum blog that includes imbedded video footage of Head Conservator Lynn Grant’s introduction, which contains some terrific images of the Conservation Department and the Museum over the last 50 years.

In addition to 30 paper presentations, the symposium featured 4 short talks entitled “Penn Stories”, and a keynote lecture. Video footage of these 5 presentations is now available on the Penn Museum YouTube channel. Check them out by following this link: Engaging Conservation video clips

 

ARCE’s 66th Annual Meeting

Last week, I attended the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which was in Houston, Texas. I was invited by Dr. David Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, to speak on a panel on the Bersheh funerary equipment of Ahanakht, which we have been working on here in the Artifact Lab. When the Artifact Lab opened in fall 2012, we began working on this material, which included conservation and a full transcription, translation, and analysis of the inscribed texts.

The panel at ARCE included Dr. Silverman, who spoke about the discoveries that he has made about Ahanakht’s funerary equipment, including translations of the texts on the outer coffin and the discovery of canopic box pieces, previously thought to be pieces of an offering box, or additional pieces of the coffins. Leah Humphrey, a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, presented her work on the transcription and translation of the edge inscriptions on the outer coffin boards. I spoke about the conservation of the boards, and the technical study that we have carried out to better understand their materials and technology (my presentation was co-authored by Alexis North, another conservator in our department).

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

In addition to our panel, there were two sessions devoted to ongoing work in Abydos, which included presentations by Dr. Josef Wegner, who spoke about the recent discovery of the pharaoh Senebkay, Dr. Jane Hill, who presented the forensic examination of Senebkay’s remains, and two Penn graduate students, Paul Verheist and Shelby Justl, who spoke about projects related to the excavations and finds from the recent seasons in Abydos.

It was my first time attending the conference, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all the talks and meeting lots of new people. A PDF containing the full list of speakers and abstracts (in the 2015 abstract booklet) can be found here.

While in Houston, I also had the opportunity to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), and in particular, their recently-installed Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

The exhibit was very impressive, and consists of objects from the HMNS collection, but also large loans from institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Egyptian collection at Chiddingstone Castle. I was especially interested to see some objects similar to those I have worked on or am working on in the Artifact Lab, including this falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, which is similar to our own corn mummy and coffin:

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

and the coffin of Neskhons, made of painted wood, from the Third Intermediate Period, and similar to the painted wooden coffin currently in the lab:

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

I left the ARCE meeting feeling invigorated to return to work, not only because I was relieved that my presentation was behind me, but mostly because of the new things that I learned, arming me with new resources, questions, and directions to take in my own projects. I think this is the best that you can hope for when attending a conference!