Penn Museum Puts "Behind the Scenes" on Display with
Exhibition Featuring Open Conservation Lab
PHILADELPHIA, PA, February 2013—The behind-the-scenes world of museum conservation just became public, as the Penn Museum opens a brand new conservation workspace, complete with project conservator, on view during regular museum hours.
In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies is an evolving collaborative project between the Museum's Conservation Department and its Egyptian Section. Molly Gleeson, principal project conservator, focuses her work on the cleaning, restoration, and preservation of about 30 pieces from the Museum's renowned ancient Egyptian collection—art, artifacts, and mummies, human and animal. Museum Egyptologists provide key information about the objects. As the project progresses, conservators may reveal a wide range of details once hidden by dirt and damage—providing new information for Egyptian scholars and ultimately, for curious museum visitors who wish to learn more about our ancient past. Penn Museum visitors can watch Ms. Gleeson, or other members of the Penn Museum Conservation Department, at work throughout the day, and interact with her during question and answer periods at 11:15 am and again at 2:00 pm, Tuesday through Friday; or at 1:00 and 3:30 pm on weekends.
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 Lab is complete with conservators' tools of the trade, including a high powered (60X) binocular microscope and even higher powered (200X) polarized light microscope, optivisors, a fume extractor to whisk away noxious chemicals, a HEPA filter vacuum, an examination light trolley perfect for directing light at various power levels onto delicate objects, and a wide range of small hand tools as well as adhesives, solvents, and other chemicals.
Visitors can look in to see a range of artifacts in various stages of conservation, watching as Ms. Gleeson moves from studying, preparing, cleaning, mending, or conserving an elegant ancient coffin lid, to working on elaborately wrapped animal mummies and human mummy heads. When she is not available to answer questions, a Smartboard is updated with information about the projects being carried out for the day.
In the Artifact Lab also features a changing exhibition space, where guests can read about the conservation plan for ancient Egyptian art and artifacts, see objects before and after they are conserved, and take in a brief history of ancient Egyptian history and culture. Sometimes the work of conservators can be dramatic, as was the case with an ancient Egyptian mummy shroud, made of linen and paint and estimated to be about 2,000 years old, purchased by the Museum in 1936. It appeared, on closer inspection by Egyptologists and conservators, to be incorrectly pieced together. In 1997, the piece was re-assembled correctly and now, properly arranged, the text clearly reveals the deceased's name, Hor.
Conservation is a skill and a science, and guests can watch as the project conservator examines ancient material fragments under one of two high-powered microscopes—with the results of what she sees on view on a large-scale screen. For those who want to try it themselves, an interactive microscope station invites all to put a range of materials, from papyrus to copper to cartonnage, under the microscope, observing firsthand the effects of decay over time, and getting a better sense of some of the challenges conservators face when caring for objects made from similar materials.
Visitors who can't make it in but who want to follow some of the activities and progress of In the Artifact Lab can follow the associated blog or get a wider perspective on Museum conservation with the Conservation Department's full complement of activity blogs.
Molly Gleeson, conservator for this project, joined the Penn Museum's conservation team in September. Ms. Gleeson, who has a BA in Art Conservation from the University of Delaware, graduated with an MA from the UCLA/Getty Master's Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials in 2008. She has worked in private practice in California, and as a Research Associate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her first conservation involvement with mummified human remains was in her work on the Tarapacá Valley Archaeological Project in Chile.
In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies is made possible with a generous contribution from Frances Rockwell and Penn alumnus John R. Rockwell (W64, WG66).
Penn Museum's ancient Egyptian collection is one of the finest in the country. The Museum houses about 42,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts, the majority of which were obtained from archaeological investigations in Egypt. The first floor Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery features a 12-ton red granite sphinx, the largest in the western hemisphere, as well as the gateway, columns, doorways, and windows from the palace of the pharaoh Merenptah, all about 1200 BCE. The upstairs Egypt (Mummy) Gallery features fine Egyptian sculpture spanning 5,000 years of cultural change and continuity. Two smaller side gallery exhibitions, The Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science, and Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun, provide additional perspectives on ancient Egyptian culture and times through the millennia.
Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2012, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.
Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (on Penn's campus, across from Franklin Field). Public transportation to the Museum is available via SEPTA's Regional Rail Line at University City Station; the Market-Frankford Subway Line at 34th Street Station; trolley routes 11, 13, 34, and 36; and bus routes 12, 21, 30, 40, and 42. Museum hours are Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Wednesday, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, with P.M. @ PENN MUSEUM evening programs offered select Wednesdays. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission donation is $12 for adults; $10 for senior citizens (65 and above); $10 for U.S. Military; $8 for children (6 to 17) and full-time students with ID; free to Members, PennCard holders, and children 5 and younger; "pay-what-you-want" the last hour before closing. Hot and cold meals and light refreshments are offered to visitors with or without Museum admission in The Pepper Mill Café; the Museum Shop and Pyramid Shop for Children offer a wide selection of gifts, books, games, clothing and jewelry. Penn Museum can be found on the web at www.penn.museum. For general information call 215.898.4000. For group tour information call 215.746.8183.
Photo captions: Project conservator Molly Gleeson documents the condition of a falcon mummy. Two mummified human heads are visible in the foreground. In the Artifact Lab brings visitors into a Museum conservator's world with the opportunity to see conservators at work on Egyptian artifacts from the Museum's own collection (photo: Jim Graham); visitors to In the Artifact Lab examine material samples under magnification at the Proscope station. Penn Museum's newest project invites the public behind the scenes to see the conservation of Egyptian artifacts in a working laboratory (photo: Jim Graham); Molly Gleeson, In the Artifact Lab project conservator, examines a gilded, mummified human head dating to the Roman period (after 30 CE) to understand its condition and determine if any conservation treatment is necessary (photo: Penn Museum).