Penn Museum’s Artifact Lab gives close-up view of ancient objects

The Penn Museum’s ongoing exhibition, “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies,” offers visitors an insider’s look at efforts to document, preserve, and restore ancient objects in the Museum’s extensive collection.

Located on the third floor, the glass-enclosed Artifact Lab, which opened in 2012, allows museum goers to watch as conservators work on some of the 50,000 items in the Egyptian collection, including animal mummies, human mummies, masks, and painted wooden coffins. Funding for the lab was provided by John R. Rockwell and David A. Schwartz.

The lab’s workspace is equipped with archival materials, adhesives, and high-powered microscopes that are connected to a video screen that shows visitors exactly what the conservators see.

Molly Gleeson, Schwartz Project Conservator at the Museum and the primary project conservator in the Artifact Lab, says the goal of the treatments is not to make the objects look like they did originally.

“The items spent a long time in the ground in a tomb for thousands of years,” she says. “The goal is always structural stabilization and to present these pieces and make them easy to be interpreted and researched, and handled and displayed safely.”

While some items in the lab need only a bit of cleaning, others need more extensive work such as repairing missing sections of a painted wooden coffin and securing the linen wrappings of a mummy.

In working with mummies, Gleeson says conservators are sensitive to the fact that these are human remains, so they use minimally invasive techniques to preserve the bodies. 

“We have a netting fabric that we use, which is very sheer, which can provide some nice external support for the mummy’s wrappings without having to glue a lot of pieces together,” she says.

The exhibit offers a special treat for visitors twice a day when they can engage directly with the conservators. From 11:15 to 11:45 a.m. and 2 to 2:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 12:30 to 1 p.m. and 3:30 to 4 p.m. on weekends, the lab’s windows are opened so visitors can ask conservators questions. 

“A lot of people think these objects just arrived at the Museum,” says Lynn Grant, head conservator at the Museum. “They’ve actually been in our collection for 100 years, but every day we learn something new about them. The more information we have, the more discoveries we make. That’s one of the things that excites people.”

Artifact Lab