The Conservator’s Art: Preserving Egypt’s Past

Conservators are champions of the object world. Highly trained specialists, they play a crucial role in preserving for posterity the world’s diverse cultural heritage. This heritage is formed of two primary types of materials: organic (of biological origin—including wood, mummies, and cloth) and inorganic (of mineral origin—including stone, metal, and pottery).

Working behind the scenes, professional conservators practice “conservation”—the examination, investigation, preservation, and restoration of cultural resources. While “preservation” seeks to maintain materials in their present form and prevent further deterioration,“restoration” aims to return an object to its earlier appearance or condition. Like all professions, conservation engages in a perpetual dialectic with its past, and “best practices” of conservation evolve continually.

Conservators perform two kinds of conservation: preventive and interventive. Preventive conservation seeks to avoid deterioration by maintaining a chemically inert environment. Humidity, temperature, light, and surrounding materials are all carefully considered. Interventive treatment takes place when deterioration occurs and must be addressed.

Conservators dialogue with their objects, asking questions such as:

  • “What is this made of?”
  • “What was its original appearance?”
  • “What is its history?”
  • “What kind of information can we extract from it, now and in future?”
  • “Is it stable or is it actively deteriorating?”
  • “Why is it deteriorating?”
  • “How can I stop, or even reverse, deterioration?”
  • “How should it look after I’ve treated it? How obvious should my intervention be?”

This exhibit celebrates conservators and conservation through the lens of ancient Egypt. This is particularly appropriate because the ancient Egyptians were among the first to actively conserve their own past. Moreover, ancient Egyptian culture revolved around preserving the past for the present and future. Nowhere is this more evident than in the many funerary items so prominently on display in this exhibit.

Feature: Conservator at Work in the Gallery

As part of this exhibition, Allison Lewis, Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow, is working on Egyptian artifacts in the gallery. She is available to answer questions and explain conservation methods and techniques.

Visit Allison in the gallery 10:30 am – 4:30 pm Wednesdays through Fridays.

She writes about her work and matters of conservation in her blog.