Caring For Culture: Introducing Teens to Museum Conservation

By Lu Denegre

All photos by Emily Hirshorn

On June 4th, 2022, with the help of funding from the Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia, the Conservation and Learning Programs departments hosted “Caring for Culture”, a hands-on introduction to conservation for teens. We had a great time and got some good feedback, and look forward to welcoming another group of teens this year on June 3rd 2023!

(If you’re a teen in the Philly area, you can register here for this year’s workshop)

Last year, 24 students arrived at the museum for a day of activities. The workshop began with introductions and a presentation by Senior Project Conservator Molly Gleeson about the basics of museum conservation. What kind of work does it involve? Why do we do it and what can damage cultural heritage collections?  

Molly Gleeson addresses Caring For Culture Participants in Widener Auditorium, and a diagram of the Agents of Deterioration (from A Guide to Risk Management of Cultural Heritage (p. 27), ICCROM, 2016).

Next, participants were led in smaller groups on a tour of the Museum’s conservation lab spaces by Head Conservator Lynn Grant. They got to see the X-Ray room, the photo studio, prep room, and main lab. Lynn and Graduate Intern Nylah Byrd spoke about the different treatments a large wall painting, a cartonnage mask, and a stone sculpture have undergone. These objects will be included in the upcoming reinstallation of the Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries and have collectively required different types of imaging, storage mounts, cleaning, and structural and aesthetic fills. 

Lynn Grant leads a tour of the conservation lab
Nylah Byrd talks about the treatment of a cartonnage mask

For rest of the morning, the groups were led into the galleries by a member of the conservation department to do some documentation of their own. Each participant chose an object in the galleries to condition report and diagram. Condition reporting is one of the first things you learn as a conservator and is the first important step in assessing an object’s needs before starting treatment. This activity offered opportunities to look for real life examples of condition issues, agents of deterioration, preventative conservation steps, and mountmaking.

Participants observing a strategy for a large fill on an object in the Middle East Gallery
Completing condition report worksheets for an object chosen in the galleries

After a sunny lunch in the Warden Garden, participants came back in for some hands-on activities. Groups rotated between three stations: cleaning, close looking, and ceramic reassembly. These stations introduced some of the beginning skills needed by a conservator in training. 

At the cleaning station, teens learned to roll their own cotton swabs to gently remove grime from the surface of a dirty tile. They also applied warm agar gel to learn how we loosen up and remove grime without using too much water on more sensitive objects or more stubborn dirt. 

A participant swab cleans a dirty tile

At the close looking station, teens used a Dino-lite digital microscope to get up close and personal with some study objects. A UV light setup showed that the way materials fluoresce differently under Ultra-Violet light can help identify unknown substances. 

Conservator Julia Commander guides participants through using a Dino-lite microscope

At the ceramic reassembly station, teams worked to puzzle out the correct location of sherds and reconstruct a ceramic object. Small sandboxes, blue tape, and clamps to hold everything in place are essential tools for gluing a ceramic back together. 

If students tried their hand at each table and still had time to spare, there were also individual activities on color matching and inpainting prepared for some down time. 

We were happy to see such enthusiastic attendance of this program last year and hope we get to meet some more future conservators at the workshop next month! If you or someone you know would like to participate, you can find more info and register here for this year’s workshop!

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.

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 (

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!