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The IMA in Egypt, Part 1: Science in the Sand

Today’s blogger is Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the IMA. Dr. Smith is reporting through a series of blog posts on the IMA’s involvement in a new exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

This spring I was part of a multi-disciplinary team tackling tricky archaeology in Egypt. The University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, under the direction of Egyptologist Dr. Janet Richards, excavates a famous cemetery site there, the Abydos Middle Cemetery (AMC). Abydos, positioned mid-way up the Nile River, was the burial site of Egypt’s earliest kings. Archaeologists commonly encounter beautifully-decorated funerary materials at the site, like the painted wood coffin shown below.

Figure 1. A painted coffin being unearthed at the Abydos Middle Cemetery excavation. Photo, S. Davis, courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Figure 1. A painted coffin being unearthed at the Abydos Middle Cemetery excavation. Photo, S. Davis, courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Although these artifacts look well preserved, they are anything but! The wood has been attacked by fungi and termites to the point that only a brittle web of debris, insect frass (a.k.a. bug poop), and mud is holding it together. On top of this delicate matrix is an eggshell-thin layer of gesso and paint. How does one excavate and lift these fragile objects without crushing them? Archaeologists and conservators currently use a variety of methods to preserve these artifacts, but none work very well. The goal of this project was to find better approaches that could be used in the harsh desert conditions.

Figure 2. Dr. Smith descending into a cistern at Sepphoris, Israel.

Figure 2. Dr. Smith descending into a cistern at Sepphoris, Israel.

So why me? To develop new conservation methods, the AMC conservators needed to understand the paints, pigments, and other materials present on the artifacts. Any new conservation treatment they designed would have to be sympathetic to these materials and not cause unexpected harm. Since no artifacts, or even samples of artifacts, are allowed to leave Egypt, the scientist and the necessary equipment would have to travel to Egypt with the project team. As it happens, I have a background in both chemistry and archaeology. While a chemistry graduate student at Duke University, I spent my summers excavating at Sepphoris in Israel’s Galilee region (Figure 2). With my conservation science expertise, the necessary portable instruments, and previous experience in archaeology, I was a natural fit.

ima_egypt_fig3_101513The project team would spend several days in Cairo consulting with local conservators and visiting museums with artifacts similar to those at the field site. Then we were off to Abydos for a week of analysis and conservation trials. Our group, pictured below in front of the modern-day Abydos village, consisted of:

  • AMC/Kelsey Museum conservators Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello
  • Smithsonian Institution conservator Rae Beaubien, a specialist in the excavation of fragile archaeological materials
  • The MFA Boston’s Pamela Hatchfield, who has considerable expertise in the conservation of Egyptian antiquities
  • Dr. Robert Blanchette, professor of plant pathology and specialist in archaeological wood at the University of Minnesota
  • Mycologist Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Azeem, from Egypt’s University of Suez Canal, who has studied the fungi of North Africa

Stay tuned for part two of the story as I discuss working in the field!


Filed under: African Art, Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Travel


Indiana by the Numbers

Commissioned in 1980 for the 20th anniversary of Melvin Simon & Associates (now Simon Property Group), Robert Indiana’s eight-foot-tall polychrome Numbers are iconic works from one of America’s most recognizable artists. The new exhibition Indiana by the Numbers (opening this Friday, May 24) traces the history of their design and fabrication, tells the story of their display before they were donated to the IMA in 1989, and provides a glimpse into their recent restoration and repainting by the IMA conservation department.

Robert Indiana (American, b. 1928), Numbers, 1980-1983, painted aluminum, 8x8x4 ft. (each), Gift of Melvin Simon and Associates, 1988.246. (c) 2013 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Robert Indiana (American, b. 1928), Numbers, 1980-1983, painted aluminum, 8x8x4 ft. (each), Gift of Melvin Simon and Associates, 1988.246. (c) 2013 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I asked Richard McCoy, conservator of objects and variable art, about the exhibition.

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Filed under: Conservation, Contemporary


Burn Out or Fade Away

Today's Guest Bloggers are Gregory Dale Smith, Ph.D., the IMA's Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist, and Michael Columbia, Ph.D., Sabbatical Leave Research Fellow - IPFW

It is an uncomfortable truth that in showing you an artwork in a museum, we are potentially destroying it.  As a conservation professional, it feels wrong to admit that, but it is true.  Every photon, or packet of radiant energy, that strikes the surface of an art object has the potential to do damage, and we most often see that as a negative change in the artwork’s aesthetics: darkening, fading, yellowing, chalking, crosslinking, etc.  It’s an unstoppable phenomenon, but one that proceeds at a variety of rates.  Certainly color change is one of the most notable alterations that light can cause in an artwork, and so we must dole out the expected lifetime of an object using an informed and rational approach.  Conservators and collections managers go to great pains to protect artwork by limiting its exposure to light.  This can take the form of reducing light intensity, restricting its spectral output, or limiting the duration of an exhibition.  These stewards of the collection get additional insight and data from scientists who study the fading behavior of artists’ materials.

For the past several months the IMA has been conducting a condition survey of its photograph collection, over 800 objects that span the history of the medium.  This program is sponsored by a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a wing of the federal government that supports museum and conservation activities.  In addition to the inventory and conservation assessment of each artwork, the grant has also funded a study of the lightfastness of the contemporary color photographs in the collection using a technique called microfade testing (MFT), or microfadeometry.  The goal of the study is to determine the susceptibility to color change for the highest priority color photographs in the collection and to determine patterns of lightfastness among the many photographic processes.  This data in turn informs our exhibition, loan, and lighting guidelines for the collection.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Watercolor paint outs after artificial light aging.

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Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection


A Solution to Fill the Voids

Today's guest blogger is Sarah Gowen, the Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Paintings Conservation.

As many of the previous conservation blog postings have illustrated, conservators are often faced with challenges in the analysis and treatment of artworks; however, sometimes the examination of a work can be in itself a challenge.  When a work enters the IMA conservation studio, it is carefully examined and documented.  Documentation includes reporting observations about the object’s condition and detailed photography of all surfaces.  During this process, x-ray images may be taken.  X-radiographs can augment the conservator’s understanding of the object’s condition, reveal the artist’s technique, and expose artist changes.

Unfortunately, sometimes the process is not as easy as taking a quick x-ray image of a work.  What happens when the image in question is obscured by another element of the work itself?  Take for example cradled panel paintings.  In the past, treatment of wooden panel paintings often included adhering a criss-crossed network of wooden beams to the reverse to support the panel.  Conservators now know that restraining wood in such a way can cause additional damage, but the process of removing a cradle can be invasive and is often not necessary if the painting is kept in a stable environment.  The network of beams, however, complicates x-radiography.

A case in point is this small (11 1/4 in. x 8 5/8 in.) Dutch portrait by Ferdinand Bol from 1659.  A cradle has been adhered to the reverse, likely to support two horizontal damages (one towards the top through the sitter’s hat and one at the bottom below the sitter’s hand).


Front and back of Portrait of a Man by Ferdinand Bol

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Filed under: Art, Conservation, Guest Bloggers


Meeting Gaetano Pesce

It was 3 pm when I met Gaetano Pesce at his New York office in January, but the moon was already rising, courtesy of the Notturno a New York sofa which he designed and where he sat.

Nighttime in New York

Gaetano Pesce on the Notturno a New York sofa. Image via


This vintage promotional image of the UP chairs shows numbers 1-6 with their original packaging. Image via

As a designer and architect, Pesce’s long career is distinguished by his creative use of modern materials to fabricate utilitarian objects that communicate socially and politically conscious messages. His most famous design is probably UP5 and UP6, a chair and ottoman combination designed in 1969 and widely known as “The Mamma” or “La Donna”.

These pieces were originally sold in flat, vacuum sealed packages. Once the package was opened, the compressed polyurethane foam expanded into a fully formed chair.  Watch it grow! But this playful design is also meant to convey a darker message about the condition of women as victims of prejudice and oppression, where the ottoman forms a prisoner’s ball and chain attached to a shape that recalls a prehistoric fertility figure.

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Filed under: Art, Conservation, Design


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