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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

A recap of Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I just returned to work after 2 fascinating days of Death Salon: Mutter Museum, an event filled with presentations, speaker panels, Q&A sessions, murder ballads, a Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, and Death Quizzo.

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. There were a wide variety of speakers presenting on topics related to death, how different cultures deal with death (both past and present), and our relationship to death and mortality. I spoke on the first day about my work on the mummies here at the Penn Museum – mostly about how we treat them today and how this has changed over time, using examples including PUM I, our baby boy mummy, Wilfred/a, and Nespekashuti. But you’ve heard about all of them before. Let me provide a brief outline of all of the other speakers, with links as appropriate.

  • Dr. Marianne Hamel is a medical examiner who spoke about what it’s really like to be a forensic pathologist vs. what you see on TV. She also was a consultant for the wildly popular podcast Serial and co-founder of Death Under Glass, which also had a booth at the Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, selling watches, umbrellas, notepads, etc. featuring beautiful forensic microscopic images.
  • Alexis Jeffcoat (Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery) spoke about the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and their efforts to make Laurel Hill a place for the living as well as for the dead, with vibrant community programming.
  • Ryan Matthew Cohn spoke about historical skeletal preparations and models of the human body, along with his own work to make exploded and dissected skulls.
  • A panel discussion about American death spaces with Colin Dickey about the battlefields of the American Civil War and Bess Lovejoy on Hart Island: The World’s Biggest Tax-Funded Cemetery. I had never heard of Hart Island before, where unclaimed bodies and bodies of the poor and stillborn are soon to number one million. There are recent efforts to document the burials and transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.
  • Evi Numen, Mutter Museum exhibitions manager, spoke about the Curious Story of One-Eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act, discussing the struggle to legislate cadaver dissection and ownership.
  • Dr. Paul Koudounaris (a now 5-time Death Salon speaker!), who has extensively researched charnel houses and ossuaries, discussed various cultures’ relationships with the dead. He specifically shared information about Indonesian communities who mummify family members and exhume them each year to care for and celebrate them, and sometimes even keep them in their homes.
  • A panel discussion about anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) with Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, analytical chemist Dr. Daniel Kirby, Juniata College Chemistry Chair Dr. Richard Hark, and Death Salon Director and USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Their project is aimed at surveying and creating an inventory of books bound in human skin, and they are using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine this. So far they have tested 22 books – 12 are actually human, while the others are sheep, cow, and even faux skin. The Mutter has the largest known collection in the world, with 5 authentic human skin books.
  • A presentation by Sarah Troop about the rituals and art of child death in Mexico. She discussed the tradition, which used to be practiced in many Latin American countries, where dead children become a hybrid between saints and angels called angelitos, and the most famous angelito, Miguel Angel Gaitan from Argentina, who died in 1967.
  • Dr. Norma Bowe discussed her death class at Kean University which she has been teaching for 15 years and has a 3-year wait list. She uses experiential learning in the class and they make several field trips, including to a hospice care facility, a Ronald McDonald house, a funeral home, a cemetery, a maximum security prison, a crematory, and a medical examiners office. A book has been written about her called The Death Class and its currently being turned into a TV show.
  • Elizabeth Harper spoke about incorrupt saints, which apparently aren’t very easy to identify just by looking at them. Her presentation included images of saints she’s visited and a little game of “Incorrupt or Nah”.
  • Artist David Orr presented his work photographing human skulls from the Mutter Museum collection and mirroring one side to create perfectly symmetrical results. This project, Perfect Vessels, can be viewed on his website.
  • Penn physician Dr. Erin Lockard spoke about death from the doctor/daughter perspective in a conversation with Death Salon Director Megan Rosenbloom. She shared her experiences both as a physician who specializes in geriatric medicine and how experiencing her mother’s illness and end of life has affected her work.
  • Mutter Museum Director Dr. Robert Hicks gave a presentation entitled Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums. He spoke about our relationship and discomfort around post-mortem imagery, and how other cultures are ahead of us in terms of articulating an aesthetic of death, decay, and mortality.
  • Christine Colby discussed the issues for transgender people in how to preserve their identity in death and and the work that is being carried out to assist transgender people and their families and friends.
  • The formal presentations of the conference concluded with a session entitled Ask a Mortician LIVE. Two morticians, Sheri Booker and Caitlin Doughty (Death Salon co-founder), fielded audience questions about their work.

The talks were incredibly interesting and often quite inspiring (and even tear-provoking), and there was an enthusiastic audience of at least 200 people by my count (probably more). The engaging day-time programming was supplemented by some terrific evening events, including behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter, a Death Ball with a performance of 15th-century funerary music by The Divine Hand Ensemble, murder ballad performances, and a Death Quizzo. This conference had some of the best opportunities for people-watching too. Unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos but if you’re interested you can see some on the Death Salon Instagram account.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I’m excited to be presenting at Death Salon: Mutter Museum on Monday afternoon.

Death Salon is an organization that was founded to “bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art.” They hold annual events in the spirit of the 18th-century salon to encourage discussions on topics related to death, mortality, mourning, and their effects on culture and history.

The Mutter Museum event will be the fifth Death Salon – previous meetings were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and most recently at the Getty Villa.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum is kicking off tomorrow afternoon with a walking tour through 3 historic downtown 18th-century cemeteries, organized by the Obscura Society Philly. Tomorrow evening will be a VIP Death Ball (and gotta love this: the dress code is haute macabre). There will be 2 days of talks which begin on Monday morning, covering topics by a wide variety of speakers including osteologists, museum curators, scientists, medical examiners, artists, and musicians, and more (and me). I’ll be speaking about the conservation of Egyptian mummies at the Penn Museum and how this practice has evolved over time.

I’ll follow up sometime next week with a little recap of the talks and any other interesting tidbits, which there certainly will be.

 

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!

 

As us anything! (on our Reddit AMA)

We open our windows in the lab twice daily, inviting our visitors to ask us anything, so why not open our windows just a bit wider, inviting anyone on the Internet to fire questions at us? We are doing just that, tomorrow, from 11:00-12:30 EST on reddit.com. I must confess that other than perusing Reddit a few times last fall while I, along with much of the rest of the world, listened to the first season of Serial, I have no experience using Reddit. According to it’s Wikipedia page, Reddit is an “entertainment, social networking, and news website” and content entries are organized by areas of interest called “subreddits.” One of the most popular subreddits is IAmA (“I am A”) where a user may post “AMAs” (Ask Me Anything).

So tomorrow, Wednesday March 11, from 11:00-12:30, Lynn Grant and I will be online for our very own AMA with the title “We are museum conservators working with ancient Egyptian artifacts in full public view, at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Ask us anything!

Tom Stanley, our intrepid Public Relations/Social Media Coordinator, set the AMA up, and posted instructions on how to find us on Reddit tomorrow if you’d like to follow along or ask us a question. You can find the blogpost with instructions by following this link.

Looking forward to hearing from you tomorrow!

In celebration of International Women’s Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about how to recognize this occasion, and the fact that March is Women’s History Month, In the Artifact Lab. First, I would be remiss not to note the Egyptian women represented here on exhibit, including Tawahibre (via her painted wooden coffin lid), Nefrina (by her painted cartonnage mask), Tanwa (a 5-year old mummified girl), and 2 unknown Roman-period women – one whose head is on exhibit, and another represented by her painted plaster funerary mask.

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman's head, unknown woman's funerary mask

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman’s head, unknown woman’s funerary mask

But there are some other very important women that you’ll see In the Artifact Lab as well – including the other 4 conservators in our department, Head Conservator Lynn Grant, Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek, and Tessa de Alarcon, Research Associate Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau, and many post-graduate fellows, graduate and pre-program interns, and volunteers. Sometimes you’ll see women outside of our department working with us, such as Egyptian Section Associate Curator Jen Wegner and Assistant Keeper Jean Walker, and Dr. Janet Monge, Curator and Keeper of the Physical Anthropology Section, and we also collaborate with many women both within and outside the museum. To highlight just some of these terrific colleagues, check out the slideshow below:

 

I would have liked to include a few other women in this slideshow who we work with regularly, but unfortunately I don’t have photos of them working in the lab – notably Dr. Gretchen Hall and Dr. Naomi Miller. And then there are the women who work in other departments in the museum – I was going to make a list, but then I realized that we collaborate with all of the departments in important ways.

We are also very grateful for the women who have come before us at the museum, and I hope/plan to write another post later this month focusing on one person in particular who helped pave the way for the women not only in our museum, but in our field.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Exploring Villanova’s new CAVE

Today was the launch of the Villanova CAVE. I’m a little confused about what CAVE stands for because in the opening remarks someone mentioned that it is “computer assisted virtual environment” but in all of the promotional materials about the CAVE it says that it stands for “CAVE automatic virtual environment”. In any case, it’s an 18′ x 10′ x 7.5′ high room with a configurable ceiling, where, with a pair of special glasses, you are immersed in a virtual experience, which could mean exploring areas closed to the public in Eastern State Penitentiary, walking through a plaza in Mexico, or looking inside a falcon mummy. And not just any falcon mummy, OUR falcon mummy, which is why I was at the opening today.

Dr. Frank Klassner giving the opening remarks at the Villanova CAVE opening

Dr. Frank Klassner giving the opening remarks at the Villanova CAVE opening

We found out about the CAVE several months ago, thanks to Dr. Michael Zimmerman, who introduced Lynn Grant and I to his colleague Dr. Frank Klassner. Dr. Klassner is the director of the CAVE, and is also a professor of Computing Sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology (CEET) at Villanova. Dr. Klassner was looking for collaborators who might be interested in exploring objects, places, or spaces using the CAVE. We had recently CT-scanned our falcon mummy, and offered to share that data with him.

After the opening remarks, we were allowed to enter the CAVE in groups of 15, where we put on the special glasses (which looked a lot like the 3D glasses you get in a movie theater) and we were shown some demos of the potential applications.

A glimpse inside the CAVE (we weren't really supposed to take pictures, not that they could really capture what we could see with the glasses anyway)

A glimpse inside the CAVE (we weren’t really supposed to take pictures, not that they could really capture what we could see with the glasses anyway)

They didn’t show the falcon mummy in my group, so I pulled the guy leading the demo aside (who turned out to be George Lacakes, Director of the Virtual Reality Laboratory at Rowan University), and put in a special request for the falcon. George told me that they hadn’t totally finished processing the CT-data because it needed a lot of work, so we couldn’t fully unwrap the falcon in the CAVE just yet, but we were still able to look at a portion of it (the CT-scan was captured in 2 different sections, so we were only looking at one) and peer inside to see the skeletal remains. I told Dr. Klassner that we’d just have to make a trip back once they finished processing all of the data, and he enthusiastically welcomed a return visit.

A section of the falcon mummy, viewed on George Lacake's computer, just to give you an idea of what the image looks like.

A section of the falcon mummy, viewed on George Lacakes’ computer, just to give you an idea of what the image looks like.

In addition to being able to explore objects and places through previously-captured data, the CAVE has a rover named Seymour (get it? because it helps you see more) which can capture images anywhere (like an archaeological site or the galleries of a museum) that can then be explored in the CAVE.

The development and construction of the CAVE was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Watch a time-lapse video of the CAVE being constructed, and read more about the CAVE here.

 

Conserving a 6500 year-old skeleton from Ur

No, he’s not Egyptian, and no, he’s not a mummy, but somehow this 6500 year-old skeleton made his way into the Artifact Lab, and we are working on conserving his remains.

Thanks to recent media attention, he has drawn visitors to the museum, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Fortunately for our visitors, he is on view In the Artifact Lab every day the museum is open, until we complete the conservation treatment, which will be sometime in the next few weeks.

Just to give you an idea of what you might see if you visit the lab in the upcoming weeks, here are some photos taken by Phil and Diana Monslow, a Welsh couple who visited the museum on Thursday and promptly emailed their photos to us that same day.

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton (with an Egyptian coffin from the New Kingdom in the background)

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A detail of the remains from the side, showing wax on the surface, soil, and burlap (modern, used to help lift the fragile remains from the site) below

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Thanks Phil and Diana for your great shots!