Molly Gleeson spends her days surrounded by mummies. And being watched.
In the room with her there’s a full human mummy. There are numerous human heads with (ew!) preserved hair. There’s a falcon, an ibis, a herd of cats, a crocodile and two young children — all mummified.
Gleeson thinks it’s great, and so do most of those who are carefully, curiously monitoring her every move. “Every day,” explains Gleeson, “people say, ‘You have such a cool job.’”
If you’re not creeped out by preserved human body parts and animal remains dating back a few thousand years, or by descriptions that read, “The skin of this mummy is very unstable, and parts of the skull and teeth have been revealed,” then head to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology — commonly known as the Penn Museum — and hang out with the wrapped and unwrapped mummies with which Gleeson spends her days. A new exhibit/workspace called In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies showcases the normally behind-the-scenes work of museum conservation. Gleeson and her fellow conservators do their painstakingly delicate work in a glassed-in laboratory in view of visitors, who have two chances a day to talk with the conservators about what they’re doing.
“There’s a process of becoming comfortable working around human remains,” Gleeson says when asked how someone learns to do this stuff. She’s not sure how many mummies there are in the world, but the Penn Museum has 13 complete mummies as well as lots of mummified body parts, in particular plenty of human heads. Gleeson’s master’s degree is in archaeological and ethnographic materials — that is, objects, not bodies — and she’s not an Egyptologist, yet a lot of the questions lobbed at her deal with ancient Egypt and its culture. So she’s learning along with the members of the public who come see the exhibit/workspace.
The Penn Museum’s 40,000 Egyptian artifacts make this collection the third largest in the United States. “Most of the collection came here 100 years ago through Penn research,” says head conservator Lynn Grant. Penn either sent teams to do excavations or sponsored independent research, back in the time when people, uninhibited by government restrictions or permits, were pulling artifacts out of the ground faster than Bugs Bunny pulls carrots. While the early-20th-century craze for all things Egyptian may have been essentially a fashion trend, artifacts do tell stories. Recent history might be revealed to us through, say, writings and other media designed specifically to inform, but as Penn Museum assistant conservator Nina Owczarek notes, “We learn about our ancient past through material.”
Conservation is both art and science, with classwork for a student ranging from chemistry to fine art to archaeology. And conservators can work on an impressively wide range of objects.
Take that falcon mummy. “We don’t actually know if there’s a bird inside,” says Gleeson. Animal mummies in ancient Egypt could have been intended as offerings to gods or companions in the afterlife, and fake ones sometimes were created just for show or to fool a buyer. Gleeson’s goal for the falcon: to stabilize it so it’s able to make the short trip over to the hospital on campus for a “bird or no bird in there?” CT scan.
At other times in the Artifact Lab, Gleeson finds herself focused on sections of a wood coffin with writing that, when it had been assembled, was hidden on the inside and within the seams of the coffin, readable only to its contained mummy.
How does Gleeson — who arrived at the Penn Museum just a little more than a month ago — feel about the fact that, when she’s working on such rare and fragile objects, she’s constantly on display? “There’s really nowhere to hide in the space,” she concedes. In addition, “The acoustics in the room are kind of funny,” causing her to hear visitors’ conversations taking place across the room. Nevertheless, “It’s energizing. Conservation is so behind-the-scenes most of the time.” The exhibit teaches people not only about mummies and Egypt, but about an obscure profession. Going to something like the Artifact Lab, says Gleeson, “would have been really cool for me as a kid.”
In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies, ongoing, free with museum admission of $12, Tue.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St., 215-898-4000, pennmuseum.org.
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