Hi! Lynn Grant and Molly Gleeson here, conservators at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, or Penn Museum for short. We’re part of an ongoing exhibition called In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies, which features our working conservation lab in full public view. Visitors can watch us as we work to conserve objects from the Museum’s vast collections, focusing primarily on ancient Egyptian objects such as mummies, sarcophagi, figurines, pottery, and much more. And twice a day, we host Q&A sessions with the public—so we figured, why not do the same thing on Reddit?

Proof: here, here, and here.

We also maintain a blog to share our work with the public. Here are some samples to give you an idea of what we do in the Artifact Lab:

Completing the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin

More about our Predynastic mummy

Video: Shabti paint consolidation

We’re excited to answer your questions about conserving ancient artifacts, or about the materials with which we’ve been working in the exhibition. Our social media coordinator, Tom Stanley, is also here to help with tech support and general info about the Penn Museum. Ask us anything!

EDIT: Thanks for all your interest and terrific questions! We're finished taking your questions for today—we'll come back and answer some more tomorrow. In the meanwhile, you can always ask us questions on the In the Artifact Lab blog. And come visit us in person someday!

EDIT 2: We dropped back in and answered a few more questions just now—if we didn't get to yours, we're sorry! But please visit our blog and keep the conversation going. We loved talking with all of you.

Comments: 495 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

Shan027243 karma

How concerned are you with the recent news of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts throughout the Middle East? Has any attempt been made by conservators like yourself to save/salvage remaining artifacts?

InTheArtifactLab258 karma

LG: We're all heartbroken—not only about what's happening to the artifacts, but to the people there as well. The American Institute for Conservation has issued the following call to action.

We also know our many brave colleagues in those areas are doing whatever they can to protect the world's heritage—sometimes at the risk of their own lives.

small_fish78 karma

What are your thoughts on the practice of replicating museum artifacts for their own protection? For those who don't know, many of the artifacts destroyed by ISIS turned out to be plaster copies. Is this practice common in US museums? In either case, would you be concerned about the authenticity that museums might be depriving the general public by not showing the original artifacts?

InTheArtifactLab4 karma

MG: At the Penn Museum, we have only a handful of replicas on display—each of which includes a label that clearly states as much. Sometimes, they're very important objects that exist in other museums (like the Rosetta Stone) which help to contextualize our other objects on display. In other cases, long-term display of an object could be damaging, due (for example) to an excess of exposure to lights—making a reproduction a viable alternative to displaying the original.

Sturen151 karma

Do mummies smell bad? Weird question I know

InTheArtifactLab227 karma

MG: Actually not a weird question—lots of visitors ask us that. Most of the mummies in the lab don't smell at all. In fact, our oldest Egyptian mummy has kind of a nice smell. It's been characterized as sweet-smelling, almost like maple syrup or honey.

But I did work on a mummy last year that smelled pretty bad. This is due to the fact that the mummy had likely not had all of his internal organs removed, which may have caused extensive degradation of the body. This mummy was autopsied in the 1970s (a good example of treatment that we DON'T perform anymore), which confirmed the presence of those organs; here's a before and after shot of the conservation treatment we performed here in the lab in 2013.

AnAnarchivist132 karma

Which would you rather conserve: one horse-sized duck mummy, or one hundred duck-sized horse mummies?

InTheArtifactLab138 karma

LG and MG: One horse-sized duck mummy! No hesitation. In fact ,we would be eager to treat this specimen.

ciphilly111 karma

You guys have a great museum! Now please be honest, all the exhibits come to life after sunset, right?

InTheArtifactLab136 karma

LG: It is a great museum! We like to think it's lively enough during the day.

xasperous74 karma

Thanks for doing the AmA! Art conservation is my dream job. How did you first become involved in conservation and what made you want to pursue this career? What do current students need to know and do to break into this field?

InTheArtifactLab94 karma

MG: The standard route to becoming a professional conservator is to complete a graduate degree in conservation. Conservation graduate degree programs generally require 2-4 years of study. In order to be admitted into one of these programs, candidates must complete prerequisites in chemistry, art history/anthropology/architecture/archaeology, and in studio art, and often must have significant practical experience working in the field. One great way to get oriented with what aspiring conservators are doing, and for opportunities to get involved, is to visit the AIC-ECPN Facebook page. For more FAQs and information about conservation, please visit the American Institute for Conservation's website.

AustinCynic73 karma

What are the biggest challenges in conserving a mummy?

InTheArtifactLab124 karma

MG: We always have to remember that these were once living beings—therefore, unlike just conserving any other object, we need to choose materials and treatments with this in mind.

LG: We try to make our treatments as minimally invasive as possible, and primarily focus our treatments on the outer wrappings.

jibas62 karma

What was the worst thing to happen while the public was watching?

InTheArtifactLab137 karma

MG: Whatever it was, I hope that nobody saw it.

Seriously, though, we have really great, giant light trolleys that we can move around the lab to illuminate our workspaces. I often hit my head on them when I stand up, forgetting that they're there, much to the amusement of our visitors.

HollyHobbLe61 karma

Have you had anything "strange" or paranormal type experiences with any of the items you've worked with?

InTheArtifactLab190 karma

MG: Maybe not "paranormal" but a feeling of connection with the past. We sometimes see fingerprints, hairs caught into weaving, and it's impossible to not feel a little chill.

PhilosophersStone141 karma

What is the coolest thing you have ever seen in relation to the collection?

InTheArtifactLab49 karma

LG: That changes every day! We have about a million objects in our collection from throughout the world, so there's always something really cool. We're also lucky that, as conservators, we get to spend quality time with the artifacts and appreciate details that are not easily evident.

Anfinset15 karma

I would be super interested in hearing or seeing these things that go unnoticed! You dont have a blog or anything we can follow?

InTheArtifactLab26 karma

MG: We sure do!

TS: We also have a general Museum blog that you might find interesting.

CristalMD41 karma

In conserving the ancient Egyptian artifacts what is the biggest challenge you have come across?

InTheArtifactLab77 karma

MG: I think of of the biggest challenges is figuring out what we're seeing and how to interpret it. Sometimes it's about seeing things on the objects that appear strange, and working with our curators or available technology to figure them out. For example, right now I'm working on a coffin board that has definitely been repaired at some point. What's confusing is whether this was a modern or ancient repair. So, soon, I hope to x-ray this object in the hopes that it will clarify what I'm seeing.

salydra38 karma

Do you feel that stealing artifacts is justified if it means people with no right to them get to see them in a museum?

InTheArtifactLab75 karma

No, stealing artifacts is never justified. All of the objects at our Museum were obtained legally. Around the turn of the 19th century, the Museum began acquiring objects through purchases and gifts from local benefactors. However, the collections of the Egyptian Section derive primarily from excavations sponsored by the Penn Museum. Before beginning its own excavations, the Museum financially supported the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Egypt Exploration Society), a British organization responsible for archaeological excavations throughout Egypt.

The Penn Museum was the first institution to take a public stand on this subject, which continues to be highly controversial. On April 1, 1970, the Penn Museum issued what came to be known as the Pennsylvania Declaration, stating that no object would be purchased unless accompanied by a pedigree, including "information about the different owners, place of origin, legality of export, etc."

manudattaraya32 karma

Is flash photography prohibited at your museum ?

InTheArtifactLab95 karma

LG: Photography is allowed, but flash is not. From a conservation standpoint, flash photography is not a problem.

TS: The policy is more for the other guests in the room. It detracts from the visitor experience to have flashes constantly going off in the galleries.

wcozzdtdch27 karma

What kind of photography equipment do you use to document your work?

InTheArtifactLab39 karma

MG: We use digital SLR cameras for basic object treatment documentation. In addition, we also do a lot of special photography, including multispectral imaging—for this imaging, we use a modified digital camera and special filters. We also do Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) for certain objects, especially those with inscriptions or subtle surface details.

LG: We can also use our high-powered microscopes to take detailed photographs of objects.

ColdFire8624 karma

What's the oldest Egyptian artifact in the museum?

InTheArtifactLab53 karma

We don't know which of them is the oldest, but we have several objects from the Fayum, which dates to about 4,000 BCE.

MissMidnightStardust23 karma

When you first receive a "new" mummy to the museum, what are the first steps you undertake when preparing to examine it?

InTheArtifactLab40 karma

LG: All of the mummies at the Museum are old mummies—old as in they arrived here 100+ years ago.

MG: But, when a mummy first comes into the Artifact Lab, we take photos to document its condition. Then we spend a lot of time sitting with it, examining it, and we'll write a condition report that describes the materials and technology used to prepare the mummy, and details about its current condition. We'll propose treatment if needed.

_Bobbin22 karma

Is there an additional charge for the exhibition in addition to the museum ticket fee?

InTheArtifactLab33 karma

LG: No there is not! All the more reason to come back and visit again and again.

noshore4me21 karma

Where do you get your favorite cheesesteaks from in Philly?

InTheArtifactLab46 karma

TS: Molly and Lynn have no opinion. My favorite comes from the Roxborough neighborhood, from a lovely spot called D'Alessandro's.

DavidSchwartz19 karma

Hi Molly & Lynn! Do you think that archaeology journals should contain sections devoted to archaeological conservation? At the present time, none appear to have that.

InTheArtifactLab22 karma

MG: Hi Dave!! I think that more conservators should publish in archaeological journals. We're in constant dialogue about how to integrate these fields, and continue to raise awareness of conservation research.

LG: Yes, I think we really need ways to reach out to our archaeological colleagues. Right now, Molly is co-author of four articles with other specialists—none of which is published in conservation journals. One is the Anatomical Record, the other three are archaeological journals.

Perung16 karma

Has the way your work changed due to the fact that it is in public view? For example, do you try to do things which would appeal to the public more?

InTheArtifactLab30 karma

MG: The actual work itself hasn't changed, but definitely, the flow of my day has significantly changed. Twice a day, there are 30-minute sessions when I'm available to answer visitor questions, so I can't really carry out treatment during this time. Its also impossible not to be aware of the fact that people are watching me, and it took me a while to adjust to this. Occasionally, there are some things that I prefer to do when the Museum isn't open—for instance, lifting a very fragile mummy out of his coffin for the first time. But after doing this for two and a half years, we're getting used to performing even these tasks with the public watching.

gliscalzi13 karma

How do you choose your materials and techniques for repairs? Is it pretty standard or do you need to do some testing and investigating first?

InTheArtifactLab19 karma

LG: I think it's a bit of both.

MG: After spending two and a half years working on mummies and other Egyptian objects, I have a pretty standard set of materials and treatment methodologies that I employ—but testing and research is still involved. When encountering an object with which I have little or no experience, there is much more research and testing involved at the beginning of treatment.

Titular_Character13 karma

In the pages on the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin, it notes the coffin lid is made of wood.

Is the type of wood known, and what the origin was?

InTheArtifactLab17 karma

MG: We believe that the wood is pine based on a visual assessment. We didn't, and won't, pursue taking a destructive sample. Our resident archaeobotanist, Dr. Naomi Miller, examined the coffin and made this determination for us.

We sometimes have available samples from other wooden objects, and therefore can do microscopic wood ID. See this relevant blog post for more.

well_rounded12 karma

Where did you ladies go to school? Any intersting/exciting/embarrassing stories from your student days?

InTheArtifactLab26 karma

LG: I went to the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London, England.

MG: I went to UCLA/Getty Conservation Program.

TS: Aaaaaaand we're out of time! :)

JacBQwik6 karma

What do you use to prevent metals from tarnishing?

InTheArtifactLab15 karma

MG: Controlling the environment is one of the most important measures we can take, specifically the relative humidity. You might also check out this AIC page on caring for your treasures.