By Lynn Grant
Penn Museum’s Conservation Department is charged with reviewing, documenting, and stabilizing every artifact that goes on exhibition in the Museum. Most of the time, the objects tend to be in the ‘smaller than a breadbox’ (if you don’t recognize that category, check out this article) and are dealt with fairly expeditiously, especially once our labs were renovated in 2014. Before that, larger objects were a challenge, which was one factor in turning a gallery space into the Artifact Lab. Even with the renovated lab, working on large objects (large textiles, eagle feather bonnets, carved elephant tusks) requires negotiating with colleagues – or sometimes just having a group session to free up the space as quickly as possible.
But then there’s the ‘Wayyyyy bigger than a breadbox category”, aka monumental artifacts – too big to bring into lab. Sometimes we’ve dealt with this by bringing the lab to the artifact (Tang Taizong, Buddhist murals, Kaipure, the Sphinx).
For the renovation of our Ancient Egyptian and Nubian galleries, though, the sheer number of monumental artifacts, including parts of a Pharaonic palace was (nearly) overwhelming.
Fortunately, planning began early. When we assessed all the various pieces, we came out with three categories: 1) can fit into lab; 2) too large for lab but not too large to leave building; and 3) too large for lab and too large to leave building. This last category included pieces that were too large and/or heavy for our current freight elevator and loading dock. We ended up closing the Museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery in the summer of 2018 to permit the objects in Category 3 to be treated in situ.
This was not an ideal situation, not only because it deprived visitors of access to those objects longer than we hoped; but also because the space is not very suitable and would be adjacent to or part of a construction site for the next 5 years. However, you can’t argue with physics. Well, you can, you just won’t win.
For artifacts in Category 2, we needed to find a space where we could store them and do the necessary conservation and reconstruction for the new installation. This was not an easy search and the University’s Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) were instrumental in helping us with the hunt. We needed a facility that was large enough to store the objects; had ceilings high enough to accommodate the re-erection of the large architectural elements; was secure or could be made so; could be adapted as a conservation work space; and was within an easy commute from the Museum. The hunt was long and hard: either the ceiling wasn’t high enough or the distance from the Museum too far or the neighborhood was too iffy, or there weren’t big enough loading docks to load/unload our monumental babies.
We finally located a space we agreed could be made to work – about 50 minutes from the Museum but it was big enough, had the ceiling height, had three loading docks – one of which was big enough to bring the truck inside (you really don’t want to be unloading Egyptian limestone in the rain), and it had areas that could be adapted as lab/office spaces.
We started moving artifacts out to the Conservation Lab Annex (CLA) last year and began serious conservation work in September. I’ll let our CLA team introduce you to their space and their work in upcoming blog posts.