Artifact Conservation on Display at the Penn Museum

Visitors to the Penn Museum have long had the opportunity to marvel over the beauty and rarity of the many artifacts on display. But until now, they’ve never had the chance to see the actual process of discovery that goes into restoring and preserving each artifact.

With the opening of a new exhibition and an ongoing partnership between the Museum’s Conservation Department and its Egyptian Section, this unfolding process will be out in the open for visitors to witness. “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies” places conservators at the center of the exhibit, showcasing them studying, cleaning, repairing and restoring some of the Museum’s 42,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts.

“What’s wonderful about this exhibition is that it demonstrates the work that is actually done behind the walls of these galleries,” says Julian Siggers, director of the Penn Museum.

The exhibit, housed in a renovated section of the Museum’s original 1899 building, consists of three main parts. The centerpiece is a glass-enclosed laboratory where one or more conservators will carry out their tasks using specialized microscopes, chemical cleaners and solvents, lights, and hand tools. The air in the room is climate controlled and specially ventilated to ensure the integrity of the artifacts. Twice each day at appointed times, conservators will open their windows to engage with the public, answering questions and discussing their work.

A second element of “In the Artifact Lab” is the programming area, where school groups and others can sit and listen to speakers or read books and reports about ancient Egypt and the careful work that must be done to preserve objects found during archaeological investigations. A Smart Board will offer information about artifact conservation for visitors even when the conservators are engrossed in their work.

The final component is devoted to exhibiting selected artifacts that “have special conservation stories to tell,” says Lynn Grant, the Museum’s head conservator. Currently on display is the bottom section of a mummy case dating to 1075-712 BCE. This coffin was treated by museum conservators in 1997 to restore some of the original bright colors used in its design.

Thousands more objects are awaiting treatment. A mummified girl—estimated to be about five years old—will be examined, as will mummies of a cat and a falcon. Boards from a wood coffin will also be cleaned and conserved so Egyptologists at the Museum can read the texts regarding the afterlife that artists carved into the tomb more than 4,000 years ago.

Text by Katherine Unger Baillie
Photos by Steve Minicola