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Conservation at the Brooklyn Museum: An Interview with Tina March

As you know all of the works in the To Live Forever show are from the Brooklyn Museum. What you may not know is that there was a lot of conservation work that went into putting together this exhibition. So, to find out more about what the BM conservators (and others) did to prepare these objects to travel to the IMA, I asked the three IMA objects conservation summer interns (Kendra Dacey, Andrea Mason, and Courtney Von Stein) to help me come up with some questions for Tina March, BM assistant conservator of objects. I really enjoyed reading Tina’s personal responses and think they help explain how museum exhibitions require a collaborative effort.

BM conservator Lisa Bruno and registrar Deana Setzke were here for nearly 2 weeks to oversee the installation all of the artworks into the exhibition cases. As a way to remember all of the hard work that went into the installation of this show, IMA registration department staffer Jesse Speight made a card that I think wonderfully demonstrates all of the things that went into putting this show up.

The Later Canon, 2008, 8 7/8” x 11-3/4″, RoseArt Washable Markers, BiC ‘Wite-Out’ Correction Pen, Pencil,
Sharpie Permanent Marker (black) on File Folder

How long did it take you to prepare all of the artworks for the To Live Forever Exhibition?

We started to work on the first object, Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset (37.47a-b), in the Fall of 2006, and were finishing up treatment on the very last object a week before it all left the building! While we have been working on these objects for a little over a year and a half, we have been working on many other projects as well. This includes exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum as well as preparing BM objects for loans to other museums.

There are a lot of different kinds of artworks in this show — from gold to papyrus to stone to ceramic. Did you work on all of these different kinds of artworks or did you have help from other conservators? Or are you a magician able to do all things in your conservation studio?

Many people have worked on this show. Most of the 121 artworks were treated by the objects conservation staff, headed by Lisa Bruno, and include Jakki Godfrey, myself, and intern Emy Kim (I abandoned the lab for 5 months in the middle of it all to go on maternity leave!). The papyrus piece, The Book of the Dead of Neferrenpet (35.1448a-d) was treated by the paper conservation department headed by Toni Owen, and include Rachel Danzing and intern Caitlin Jenkins. The treatment of Elaborately Painted Shroud of Neferhotep (75.114) was a collaboration between paper, objects and paintings conservation.

The Conservation Department of the Brooklyn Museum (Left to Right, Richard, Carolyn, Tina, Jakki, Lisa, Caitlen, Toni, Rachel, Elaine

The Conservation Department of the Brooklyn Museum (Left to Right, Richard, Carolyn, Tina, Jakki, Lisa, Caitlen, Toni, Rachel, Elaine)

Our paintings conservators include Ken Moser (who is also the head of the entire conservation department), Carolyn Tomkiewicz, Richard Kowall and intern Katie Patton. In addition, we had some outside conservators help us with a few treatments. Hiroko Kariya, who has worked with BM conservation off and on over the past 12 years, spearheaded the treatment of the Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset, getting help along the way from our staff as well as from private conservator Catherine Williams. A textile conservator, Kathy Francis, was brought in to help with the textile components of Mummy of Demetrios (11.600a-b) and one of the Mummified Dogs (37.1984E). And those are just the conservators!

Many other departments worked together to create this show – the curators, registrars, mountmakers, packers, art handlers, conservation scientists, carpenters, painters, and the list goes on.

What kinds of things did you do to prepare all of the artworks for this exhibition?

When any object is requested for display, we start by carefully examining it to understand its current condition, and to determine what treatment it might need to travel and go on display. We keep extensive records of every object that comes through the lab; and we document its condition through a written report and photographs before, during, and after treatment. We adhere to the code of ethics as outlined by The American Institute for Conservation. It’s fascinating when an object with a long history of conservation comes through the lab. For some of these objects we have treatment records going back to 1918.

In terms of what we actually do when we treat an object: far and away, our main focus is on insuring structural stability for objects going on such an extensive tour. We want to make sure the objects are structurally stable enough (meaning they will not break or be damaged) to withstand travel to and installation in so many museums. In order to stabilize objects we may adhere previously broken pieces together with a stable and reversible adhesive, or consolidate flaking paint – again, with a stable adhesive. Integral to the stability of an object is how they are handled, travel and are displayed.

We work with a mount maker to create mounts or supports that an object may travel on and are displayed with. For example, when you walk through the exhibit, look at the two dog mummies. They are attached to padded boards, and held in place with metal mounts that secure the mummies to the board. Or, look at the ceramic Female Figure, (07.447.502). If you look closely, you’ll see a metal mount, painted to look like part of the object, which is holding the figure safely in place. Once you start to look, you’ll see mounts everywhere! We worked with several mountmakers for this exhibition, including David Geiger, Chris Bamford, Tracie Sachs and Larry Bamburg.

We also work with special art packers to make crates with appropriate materials to minimize any vibration while the object travels. All of these factors play into the structural stability of an object.

After all of the structural stability concerns have been addressed, we focus on the aesthetics of an object (making it look nice). This often means we will clean an object. How we clean an object depends on what material it’s made from. Obviously, we wouldn’t clean a ceramic and a mummy in the same way. The cleaning process (and stabilization process) is only undertaken after extensive examination and documentation of an object and discussion with the curator. After cleaning, we would discuss with the curator the extent of compensation if certain parts were missing.

Which artwork did you spend the most time working on?

The Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset (37.47a-b) took the most work. While the bottom section of the coffin had been on display at the museum before, the lid probably hasn’t been on view for a hundred years. It needed both stabilization and cleaning. I won’t go into the details of the treatment but here are a few before and after treatment pictures – you can see what a dramatic difference conservation made.

Lid of the Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset, 37.37, before treatmentLid of the Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset, 37.47, after treatment

Left: Lid of the Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset, 37.47, before treatment Right: after treatment

Can you talk about conservation’s role in determining how these artworks are displayed? For example, did you advise on the mounts that will be used to support the artworks while on view or did you help determine things like the light levels at which the objects can be lit?

For every object that goes on display, conservation will weigh in on almost every aspect, working with curators, registrars, designers, and mountmakers. We recommend types of mounts, light levels, environmental requirements (temperature and humidity), safety requirements (type of vitrine, if the case needs to be alarmed, or platform can be used, to name just a few), handling and installation requirements (including case design and materials), packing requirements as well as how long an item can be displayed. If an object will travel to another museum, we work with the registrars to review facilities information of every venue to make sure our requirements can be met.

How did you get all the artworks from the Brooklyn Museum to the IMA?

Artwork can travel by many means of transportation, from special air-ride trucks that minimize vibration, to airplanes – both cargo and passenger – to ship. While I can’t go into the details for how the objects traveled to the IMA, I will tell you that a courier was near the art at all times. This person made sure they arrived at the IMA safe and sound.

What’s it like for an artwork to travel halfway across the country?

Scary! No, not really. There is so much preparation for a show like this, and a huge team of excellent professionals working together to ensure that these objects travel safely. It’s fantastic that people all across the US will have an opportunity to see and learn about these amazing objects.

What’s your favorite artwork in the show and why?

I love them all. When you conserve an object, even if you don’t really like it at first, you end up spending so much time with it and learning its secrets, that you end up liking them all in the end. If I really had to choose, my favorite piece would be the Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset (37.47a-b). It needed a lot of treatment, so we spent a lot of time getting to know her. What was really neat is that the coffin was reused in antiquity [go here (for a video that discusses this]. On the side of the coffin, you can see where the previous occupants name was scratched out and the name of the second occupant was written in. I know that the curator, Ed Bleiberg, went into this in much more detail in the catalog. I also love the shallow saucer (09.889.29) because it’s so simple and such a fundamental shape. They used these shallow bowls 5000 years ago and we’re still using shallow bowls today. Finally, I love the footcase of a mummy (73.89). I find it fascinating that even in death the Egyptians are stomping on their enemies (look on the underside of the footcase)!

I noticed one of the artworks in the show is a gaming board. I believe the game that is played on there is called Senet. Have you ever played Senet (of course, not with the museum piece!)?

I have not – but it sounds like fun! [You can go here to play an on-line version of Senet]

Since this show is called To Live Forever, and demonstrates some of the ways Egyptians dealt with the idea of the afterlife, did you find yourself considering your own mortality when working on this show?

Not really – I was too busy for that! When working with such ancient objects I always think about the people who made them. I think about every day things like what they may have looked like – what they had for lunch the day they were making that particular object – what they were chatting about with the other people in the workshop. I think about all the hands the objects passed through until now – ending up in my hands. I especially love handling an object, like a tool or a piece of ceramic, where you can feel the finger impressions of the maker. I think about the mummies in this show, like Demetrios, and what an amazing journey he has been on. Thousands of years old – living in Egypt in a time when no one there even knew the Americas existed, and here he is, in Brooklyn, NY. He’s even been in Brooklyn longer than most of us have been alive. Now he’s going to travel all over the US.

One piece in the show is the now-famous mummy, Demetrios, that the Brooklyn Museum had CT scanned. Can you tell us anything in particular we should look for when we see this piece?

You should take some time to look at that beautiful portrait, and the gilded parts on the body. I love that his feet were drawn on the linens and gilded.

Filed under: Conservation, Exhibitions

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