You’ve probably heard of the Penn Museum by now (Ed. note: concerned if you haven’t), but the museum is more than just the venue for the NSO toga party. It is home to one of the most incredible collections of ancient art in the country, and it is free with a valid student ID. However, in addition to expansive collection of ancient artifacts, the Museum offers some interactive elements as well. As part of an exhibition called The Artifact Lab, visitors can meet and chat with Molly Gleeson, the project conservationist, or any of the other curators and conservators who are responsible for preserving the museum’s artwork.

This exhibit is geared toward the conservation of Egyptian mummies and other funerary items, which include mummified cats and funeral masks. Visitors can observe deteriorated objects and fabrics under significant magnification and a frequently updated Smartboard filled with information, but they can also drop by an open-window session (there are two each day) and observe the conservationists as they work, and even ask them questions as they go.

When I stopped by this week, Gleeson was working on a mummy called Nespekashuti. The mummy was purchased in 1893 from Emile Brugsch, a German Egyptologist and curator at the Bulaq Museum. 

I spoke with Gleeson about the process of conserving the mummy. She explained that some aspects of the process are obvious, such as repainting and stabilizing the deteriorated pieces of the coffin, but that others are less so. Is it her job to completely restore the object? Should she? What kinds of materials would she use? How can we best preserve the artifacts and mummies, as well as its aesthetics, without compromising the authenticity?

Besides the rare, and pretty cool, opportunity of finding yourself face–to–face with cat mum- mies, the conversations that I had with Gleeson shed light on an aspect of the art world that is integral to its existence, but remains separate and behind the scenes. Conservation of artwork is arguably just as important as the creation of it, and the process of conservation is an art in and of itself.

Penn Museum, In the Artifact Lab Exhibition

3260 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19104


Tuesday—Friday 10:00am to 5:00pm

Closed on Mondays

Phone: (215) 898-4000

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Go Visit them during their open-window sessions:

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Saturday-Sunday 12:30pm and 3:30pm


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