Penn Museum live: saving mummies

The Museum exhibit which features live work by conservators will be out of funding in 2014

· November 19, 2013, 8:56 pm   ·  Updated November 19, 2013, 10:19 pm

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Conservator Molly Gleeson examines one of her “patients” in the “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies” exhibit at the Penn Museum. The exhibit allows visitors to see conservation work first hand. However, the funding for the exhibit is set to run out in August.


Among the thousand year old mummies and statues, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology offers something a bit more lively.

Molly Gleeson is part of what some jokingly term the “live” exhibit at the Museum – “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies” showcases the labor-intensive conservation of artifacts which usually takes place behind the scenes. Under a soaring ceiling and surrounded by glass walls which led to its nickname “the fishbowl,” Gleeson, a project conservator in the lab, and other conservators work to understand, restore, and preserve the estimated 42,000 pieces in the Museum’s Egyptian collection, of which only a small fraction are on display for the public.

The exhibit was originally funded by a donation from Penn alum John Rockwell and his wife Frances, but the funding is due to run out at the end of August 2014.

“I hope we can get funding to keep it for a longer period of time,” said David Silverman, a professor of Egyptology. “Here is an opportunity to see the work really going on…what goes in the making of our exhibitions.”

Many of the museum’s pieces are in storage and it is due to the funding that some pieces have been brought back into the light.

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Even something as simple as the ample lighting and space afforded by the Artifact Lab has helped researchers enormously. Silverman and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations graduate student Leah Humphrey discovered something no one else had ever noticed before when they opened the coffin in the lab. “The coolest thing is that the coffin itself has hidden inscriptions, edge inscriptions, so when the coffin is [closed] you don’t see them.” The edge inscriptions are ”spells are associated with helping the individual make a safe journey through the Netherworld,” Humphrey said.

Gleeson, meanwhile, recently completed the restoration of a deteriorating mummified falcon whose head had previously been dangling off, by using netting to support the wrappings and acid-free paper to support the neck.

“Even though everything’s been here [sometimes for] a hundred years, we’re actually learning a lot of new information,” Gleeson says, due to the new technologies now available such as their portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer which, by simply touching the surface of the material, can identify chemical elements present. This is significant because it allows conservators to understand the materials used. For example, until examined with the pXRF, no one knew that the metal ribbons on the Ahanakht coffin were made of copper so it was difficult to know how best to treat it.

The exhibit has proven to be one of the most popular in the museum, in part due to its interactive nature, according to Pam Kosty, assistant director of public information for the Museum. Visitors are able to speak with conservators at certain periods throughout the day, watch conservation happening right in front of them, and examine slides of samples under a microscope.
Humphrey was startled by the “amazement a lot of the little kids have. [They] are surprised that the mummies are real. They always believe that they’re fake.”

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Parents also often use the exhibit as an opportunity to encourage their children to study science. And both adults and children “love to see behind the scenes,” Kosty said.

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