Making a mummy costume for Halloween can be hilarious, but handling a real one is truly a unique experience. Now guests at the Penn Museum can take part in the behind-the-scenes world of museum conservation. The public is invited to visit a brand-new conservation workspace, complete with project conservator, during regular museum hours at “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies.”
Part exhibition, part working laboratory, the workspace is a glass-enclosed conservation lab set up on 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, an 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 conservator Molly 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. Sometimes the work of conservators can be dramatic, as was the case with an 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 pieces were reassembled correctly and now, properly arranged, the text clearly reveals the deceased’s name, Hor.
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 from 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.
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 shown 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 the challenges conservators face when caring for objects made from similar materials.
Penn Museum visitors can watch Gleeson, or other members of the Penn Museum Conservation Department, at work throughout the day, with question-and-answer periods at 11:15 a.m. and again 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; or at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekends. The University of Pennsylvania Museum is located 3260 South St For more information, call (215) 898-4000 or visit www.penn.museum.