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!

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. 

Making some noise

We have been notably quiet on this blog lately, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been making a lot of noise elsewhere!

Project Conservator Anna O'Neill Alexander uses a PaleoTool to remove old restoration plaster that surrounds an ancient Egyptian limestone fragment. 
The limestone fragment is part of a column from the palace complex of Merenptah, 
which dates to 1224-1204 BCE.
Project Conservator Anna O’Neill Alexander uses a PaleoTool to remove old restoration plaster that surrounds an ancient Egyptian limestone fragment.
The limestone fragment is part of a column from the palace complex of Merenptah,
which dates to 1224-1204 BCE. See the (noisy) video footage of her at work here.

We also have some BIG imminent deadlines, which have kept us very busy, and some of our monumental projects are so BIG that they can’t even be worked on within the Museum building. More on that soon.

All of that aside, we continue to work on projects in the Artifact Lab, that are not as big, necessarily, but are just as important. Most of the artifacts we are working on are to prepare for the future installation of our new Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries.

Project Conservator Teresa Jimenez-Millas is currently working on the coffin 
and mummy of Petiese in the Artifact Lab. Here she is using an adhesive 
solution to stabilize the painted surface of Petiese's coffin lid.
Project Conservator Teresa Jimenez-Millas is currently working on the coffin
and mummy of Petiese in the Artifact Lab. Here she is using an adhesive
solution to stabilize the painted surface of Petiese’s coffin lid.
Petiese was an Egyptian priest who lived during the Late Period (664 – 332 BCE).

To hear more about all these projects in REAL TIME, check out our 1-hour #AskAConservator Q&A session next Monday, November 4th, on the Penn Museum’s twitter account, or visit us when the Museum is open, where EVERY day is Ask a Conservator Day!

The Artifact Lab: back in business

We have not posted on the blog in awhile, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been up to our eyeballs in work! In fact, the Artifact Lab has been closed to the public since the week after Thanksgiving but it re-opens tomorrow as part of a larger exhibit, Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display. This new exhibit will highlight some of our Museum’s excavations in Egypt around the turn of the last century (in Memphis) and in the present day (in Abydos). It also will include artifacts that were previously on display in our Lower Egyptian gallery, which we closed last July to begin conservation work on the monumental pieces previously displayed in that space. This work is in preparation for the future opening of our Ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries and is part of our larger Building Transformation project.

Photos showing the deinstallation of pieces in the Lower Egyptian gallery, summer 2018

Another feature of Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display is a visible storage area, adjacent to the Artifact Lab, which will show coffins, mummies, and other funerary materials on “display” on storage shelves. Some of this material was treated recently in the Artifact Lab while other pieces are awaiting treatment in the upcoming months. Display cases in this space contain some pretty stellar pieces including 2 painted wooden boat models from the First Intermediate Period and the faience broad collar that was recently re-strung.

View of the visible storage space, with the Artifact Lab in the background

Before we re-open and our focus turns completely to working on material for the new Ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries, we thought we’d reflect on what we have done in the Artifact Lab over the last 6+ years that we have been open. Here are some numbers:

6+ years (77 months) in the Artifact Lab:

  • Spoken to approximately 30,000 museum visitors during our twice daily open window sessions (that is more than 2000 hours, or 83 days of talking!)
  • The outreach has been carried out by 15 conservators, five curriculum interns, 21 pre-program interns, four high school interns, and five Penn-affiliated non-conservator colleagues
  • Published 234 blog posts on this blog
  • Provided an endless array of content for the Museum’s social media accounts
  • Treated approximately 700* artifacts and 13 human mummies from the following Sections in the Museum: Egyptian, American, Asian, Near Eastern, Mediterranean, African, Babylonian, Physical Anthropology. *Note – many of these required 100+ hours of treatment
  • Spent 12 hours on the front page of
  • Thanks to this blog, reunited family members whose great grandparents donated our mummy Wilfreda to the Museum
  • Hosted and created programming for approximately 400 Penn Museum summer campers
  • Spoken with the media on more than twenty separate occasions, appeared in newspapers across the country in stories like this one about CT scanning a child mummy, and recorded content for the news and for educational programs – most recently for NBC News Learn
  • Featured in the Philadelphia Science Festival in 3 separate years, including a 2013 signature event and the “Be a Conservator!” program in 2017
  • Gave formal presentations about our work in the Artifact Lab at five professional conferences and eight other professional events/venues. They were all great but the 2015 Death Salon was definitely a highlight.

AND we had fun doing all of it!

Stay tuned for updates on some of our recent work, including treatments for objects that are in Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display and for the upcoming Mexico & Central America Gallery!


Beaded Necklaces: Restringing to Secure the Past

By Tessa Young

Who doesn’t love a beaded necklace?  They’re sold commonly today, but did you know that they were popular in the Ancient Middle East? There are a number of fabulous pieces of beaded jewelry on display in the new Middle East Galleries, and several beaded items from our collection will be featured in the Museum’s Jewelry of Ur lecture and workshop scheduled for June 14th!

Excavation of a Bronze Age necklace from a burial in the UK (Credit: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Contracting Team and Persimmon Homes Ltd [Anglia]) (

When beaded artifacts are unearthed during excavation, typically the floss, or string, which held the beads has disintegrated in the burial environment. To ensure that the beadwork does not lose its original design, archaeologists will document their findings both photographically and through written records, and sometimes, they will string the beads onto a new piece of floss. This floss was usually good enough to get the pieces back to the museum, but it is not up to our modern conservation standards!

B15918 before treatment, with a broken strand and hasty repair tying off the ends

Here at the Penn Museum, when beadwork is destined for loans, display, or requires handling for programming, the Conservation Department wants to be sure that these objects are secure. For the upcoming Jewelry of Ur program, fellow conservation technician Alyssa Rina and I were tasked with restringing several pieces of beaded jewelry, including B15918, pictured above. The floss on this piece was previously broken and then tied off in a quick repair. The plan for this conservation treatment was to restring the beads in a loop with a more durable floss.

Depending on the piece, we restring using two different weights of braided nylon floss, which has the strength necessary to hold the beads securely while also being capable of holding knots. Monofilament (fishing line) is another popular choice, but we have found that knots can come undone rather easily with this material.

Restringing beads in a padded box using a needle in the artifact lab

Penn Museum Conservators have developed several tactics to keep the beads in place during the restringing process. First, we always keep the beads contained within a padded box, preventing the beads from rolling away and getting lost. Second, as seen in the photograph, we typically use a small clamp to secure the floss to the edge of the box. This keeps everything from shifting and rolling around. Finally, we thread the floss onto a small needle to aid in the efficiency of stringing the beads. These beads had large and regular enough holes to use a standard sewing needle, but thin, flexible beading needles are also an option.

Conservators also want to be sure that the stringing will remain in place. The first bead on the string is tied into place with two half-hitches (more-or-less a fancy double knot), and then the rest of the beads are strung into place with the help of a thin, flexible needle. If the beadwork is supposed to be a loop, at the end of the strand, the floss is threaded back through the first bead, and again tied off with two half-hitches. If the beadwork is supposed to be linear, the terminal bead is tied off with two half-hitches, making sure that the beads are tight but comfortable on the strand. Once this is done, the beads are stable enough to be handled or put on display without any fear!

B15918 after re-stringing

CAAM takes over the Artifact Lab (for a day)

Update – this post contains blurred images of human remains. To read more about this decision, follow this link.

If you visit the Artifact Lab tomorrow (Tuesday August 22) during our open window sessions, you’ll be in for a treat. Instead of speaking with one of us (the conservators) you’ll have the opportunity to chat with two of our CAAM* teaching specialists, Dr. Kate Moore, Mainwaring Teaching Specialist for Zooarchaeology, and Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau, Teaching Specialist for Ceramics. We frequently consult and collaborate with them, but this will be their first time working behind the glass walls of the Artifact lab for our open window sessions.

Dr. Kate Moore and Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau in the Artifact Lab

They look ready for anything, don’t they? Don’t miss this unique opportunity (between 11:00-11:30am and 1:30-2:00pm) to ask them questions and talk to them about their work and research!

*CAAM, which stands for The Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials, is a joint endeavor between the Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences (SAS)

Ancient Egypt Open House

The museum is hosting an Ancient Egypt Open House today. This open house was put together for all local students who are taking Dr. David Silverman’s Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization on Coursera, an online platform which allows students from all over the world to enroll in the course (more than 20,000 people have signed up for the first offering). But you don’t have to be enrolled in the class to take part in the open house, which will include a talk by Dr. Silverman, Egyptian gallery tours, a mummification workshop, a hieroglyph workshop, book signings, and a special open window session in the Artifact Lab. The full schedule is posted on the museum’s website – follow this link for more information. You can also read about the course and the Open House in the Inquirer article from earlier this week:

Penn online course on Ancient Egypt – The Philadelphia Inquirer

If the open house isn’t alluring enough, remember that this is one of the last weekends to visit the Artifact Lab before we go on hiatus at the end of the year. We will be closed temporarily from December 31 but we will reopen to the public on April 8, 2017. As usual, we have some pretty interesting things in the lab that you can see when you visit, including our Egyptian mummy Hapimen, a Graeco-Roman terracotta coffin lid, and several artifacts that have been selected for our new Middle Eastern Galleries, slated to open in 2018. Here are a few images to show you how our work is coming along:

A detail of Hapimen (E16220A), showing the damage to his wrappings and body, likely caused by tomb robbers. Conservator Alexis North is working to stabilize the damage and get Hapimen ready to go back on exhibit.

Graeco-Roman terracotta coffin lid from Meydum (32-42-1107) (before treatment)

Djed-Hapi’s cartonnage mask with a temporary facing applied (during treatment) (E3413D)

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


50 years of Conservation at the Penn Museum

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Penn Museum’s Conservation Department, which was founded in 1966 through the efforts and generous support of the Museum’s Women’s Committee. It is thought to be the first archaeology and anthropology museum conservation lab in the United States to be staffed by professional conservators.

Views of the Conservation Lab ca. 1968

Views of the Conservation Lab ca. 1968

To commemorate the establishment of the department, we are hosting a symposium from October 6-8, 2016: “Engaging Conservation: Collaboration Across Disciplines.” The Symposium will feature 31 paper presentations by conservators, archaeologists, anthropologists, and specialists in related fields, which will address topics related to the conservation of archaeological and anthropological materials and the development of cross-disciplinary engagement over the past half century. In addition to these presentations, there will be an evening keynote address by Dr. Brian Rose, Director of the Museum’s Gordion Archaeological Project in Turkey. The full schedule and abstracts can be found on the symposium website by following this link:

Engaging Conservation: Collaboration Across Disciplines

Views of the Conservation Lab ca. 2016

Views of the Conservation Lab ca. 2016

We look forward to seeing some of you in Philadelphia in October for this event!


APPEAR Project – APPEAR Interim Meeting at the British Museum

Update – this post contains outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about this decision, follow this link.   

Hi! This is Eve Mayberger with an update about the Ancient Panel Painting: Examination, Analysis, and Research (APPEAR) project. During the past few months, I have been investigating the three Fayum mummy portraits in the Penn Museum with digital photography, multispectral imaging (MSI), portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF), x-ray radiography, and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to London and represent the Penn Museum at the APPEAR interim meeting.


APPEAR Project, British Museum

The meeting was jointly organized by the Getty and the British Museum. Representatives from invited institutions were asked to present an update on the current research of Fayum mummy portraits in their collections. Although not every participating institution was able to send a representative, there were individuals from the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. The group included conservators, conservation scientists, art historians, and artists who were all personally engaged with different aspects of the APPEAR project.


APPEAR Project, Presentation at the APPEAR interim meeting

For the APPEAR research at the Penn Museum, I talked about our non-destructive analysis, imaging, and outreach initiatives for the three portraits in the collection. I focused on some unusual observations I recorded with MSI on the Portrait of a Young Man (E16213). My presentation was well received and inspired a lively debate about MSI terminology and standardization protocols.


APPEAR Project, Penn Museum Presentation

Between talks and over meals, I was able to chat with other APPEAR participants about their various institutions and current research initiatives. At the end of the meeting, the British Museum was kind enough to give us an extensive tour of their new conservation labs and scientific research department. It was an amazing experience and I was honored to present our research at the Penn Museum to the larger APPEAR community.

Eve Mayberger, Curriculum Intern