“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”. With collections as large as the Museum’s, it is a major undertaking to try to keep up with their conservation needs. One way to address this is to break it down into manageable chunks. The Conservation Department has, over the past decades, undertaken surveys of discreet segments of the collections, determining their condition, their storage requirements, and prioritizing their conservation treatments.
Conservation surveys provide a useful means of assessing the health of our collections and determining conservation priorities. Current surveys include the Ur Digital Project, funded by the Leon Levy Foundation; the Lapithos survey, supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation and funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation; and the Buddhist Murals survey, supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng.
For the past three years, we have had at least one survey, often two, ongoing each year. These surveys give us an opportunity to plan for future exhibitions, to rehouse vulnerable collections, to explore groups of objects, and to create images that can be used for the Museum’s Online Collection Database. They are also powerful learning experiences for newly graduated conservators, giving them a chance to develop their own methodology, supervise others, take responsibility for a project, and work closely with Curatorial staff.
The Ur Digitization Project: Condition Assessment
Conservation’s involvement in this project began in 2013. As a part of the Ur Digitization Project, funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, the condition of the objects in the Museum’s collection from Ur, Iraq, is being evaluated using a condition survey and the collection is being photographed. The images will be available not only through the website that will be produced when the project is complete, but also on the Online Collections Database. The goal of the first year of the condition assessment is to evaluate the ceramics from the site and to photograph those which have not been previously photographed.
Kress Fellowship: Lapithos Survey
The Kress Fellow, supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation and funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, will spend ten months conducting a condition survey, re-housing, and photographing the collection of more than 2,900 Bronze Age and Iron Age artifacts (the majority being ceramic or copper alloy) from the Penn Museum’s excavations at the site of Lapithos in Cyprus.
Buddhist Murals Conservation Survey
Two of the most prominent pieces displayed in the Museum’s China Gallery are the massive wall murals believed to have been painted during the Ming Dynasty, in the 14th century or shortly thereafter. Each represents a Buddhist paradise: one depicts Bhaisajyaguru’s paradise, the Buddha of medicine who is capable of healing, and the second shows Tejaprabha’s Paradise, the Buddha of Blazing Light. Supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, we are carrying out high resolution photographic documentation of the murals, a condition survey, and creating a treatment recommendation. These first steps are crucial to producing a comprehensive conservation plan for the murals, which are in great need of repair having not received a formal condition survey or restoration treatment in over 80 years. This conservation work will continue to take place in our third-floor galleries in full view of visitors, following the example of the successful conservation of the renowned Tang Horses in the China Gallery.
Kourion Digitization Project and Condition Assessment
Beginning in June 2012 and ending in June 2013, the condition of the entire collection of objects from Korion, Cyprus, and the related sub-sites of Bamboula, Kaloriziki, Sotira Teppes, and Ayios Ermoyenis was evaluated. This collection represents a broad time range, 5000 BCE to 300 CE and includes numerous material types, such as ceramics, metals, ivory, bone, stone, and glass. The condition of the objects was assessed through a survey designed to capture condition issues for these materials. 1,986 objects were examined from the collection. As part of the survey, about 680 objects were photographed and the images published on the Online Collections Database. The goal of photography was to provide examples from all of the sub-sites. During the condition assessment the ceramics with soluble salts were given top treatment priority and many were desalinated. This survey was part of the overall Digital Kourion Project, funded by the McFadden Family.
IMLS Conservation Surveys of Pachacamac Ceramics and Textiles
In 2011, the Museum’s American Section and Conservation Department were awarded a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to conduct a conservation survey and rehouse the Museum's collection of pottery and textiles from the site of Pachacamac, Peru. Pachacamac was a sacred center in the Andean region for more than 1,000 years and figures prominently in myth, oral history, and Peruvian identity even today. The 12,000-item archaeological collection was made in 1895–1896 and contains diverse and fragile organic materials preserved in the dry environment of the Peruvian coast. The rehoused pottery was moved closer to the Pachacamac textiles, which in turn will be treated and moved into new custom cabinetry. The completed project provided the Museum with a prioritized list of recommended conservation treatments and rehoused materials that is more safely accessible for class use, research, and community engagement.