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.