Saturday, October 27, 2012

Penn Museum opens conservation lab to the public

Written by Margie Fishman Gannett 

In ancient Egypt, the prayer for the afterlife could be simple or complex, depending on the deceased’s financial wherewithal. Family members selected from among 1,200 “magical spells” to protect their loved ones, carved in chicken-scratch script on coffins. Requests included a wish for plentiful bread and beer, a nice burial in the western desert, or traveling for eternity on the roads of the gods. 

Before there was Greece, Persia or Rome, there was ancient Egypt thriving along the Nile 7,000 years ago. What the powerful civilization left behind — in the form of elaborate coffins, funerary masks, shrouds and mummified remains — informs the story of humanity.

Now, the Penn Museum is giving the public a behind-the-scenes tour of the meticulous conservation process — an integral step before artifacts can move from storage to the exhibition floor.

Housed in a glass box in a third-floor gallery, “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies,” allows visitors to interact with conservators stripping away millennia of grime to uncover the world’s first picture frames, fairytales and graffiti art. Twice a day, the team slides open a window to answer questions about the 2,000-square-foot exhibition. An interactive whiteboard details their tasks for the day, supplemented by a blog at

“What we know about our ancient past is through material culture,” says Wilmington native Nina Owczarek, an assistant conservator working on the project.

On a recent weekday, Owczarek was thrilled to discover slivers of paint on a hieroglyphic-inscribed slab of wood that formed part of a coffin from 2000 B.C. One painted coffin could include 15 of these wooden boards.

Part of Owczarek’s job is steaming away the dirt and reattaching the paint with water-based or animal-based adhesive. For more than a decade, conservators have tried to decipher the script on this coffin, with some parts hidden along the seams. They learned that the inhabitant was named Ahanakht. He served as a priest, worked for the district government and lived in middle Egypt.

Owczarek acknowledges that occasionally visitors will knock on the glass, disturbing her work, to ask questions about the live feed from her high-powered microscope. It is displayed on a screen above.

There also are interactive microscope stations, where guests can test materials from papyrus to copper to observe the effects of decay over time. At a “please touch” station, a simulated mummy skin feels like heavy cloth.

For the exhibit, the archaeology and anthropology museum selected 30 objects — many of them never before on public display — from its 42,000-piece collection. Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, the Penn Museum boasts one of the finest ancient Egyptian collections in the country. The museum has been involved in Egypt excavations since the late 19th century.

Among the items on display are mummified humans and animals. A mummified ibis and cat resemble bandaged legs. The Egyptians did not pay homage to beloved pets. Rather, they offered them as sacrifices.

To prepare the human body for burial, embalmers and priests removed all vital organs except for the heart — what they considered to be the center of intelligence and emotion. They covered the corpse in a type of natural salt to dry it out, then packed it in linen and sand and wrapped it in layers of linen bandages. The linen was then covered with a thin layer of plaster and painted.

A plaster mummy mask, positioned on the head, was raised at an angle to convey the body rising up. The entire preparation process took from 70 to 270 days.

Other items in the exhibit include wooden portraits displaying the jewelry, hairstyles and dress of the wealthy elite at the time. A 2,000-year-old mummy shroud was purchased by the museum in 1936.

“I hope that people will see that there is excitement in this work,” says Silverman, who became mesmerized by Egyptology as a youngster visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The whole story is here.”


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