Penn Museum presents In the Artifact Lab. Conserving Egyptian Mummies

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, with question and answer periods at 11:15 am and again 2:00 pm, Tuesday to 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 filtered 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 elaborately wrapped animal mummies, to 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.

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