5 Things to Consider When Dealing With Egyptian Artefacts
National Museums Liverpool's World Museum is about to open its doors to the new Ancient Egypt gallery
In the face of the sheer number of coffins, mummies and Egyptian artefacts that are now on display, some will wonder at how they were conserved. Luckily, we've got Organics Conservator and Icon member, Tania Desloge, from the museum to share her conservator secrets. So, here are a few of the many factors that had to be considered during treatment:
A large number of the coffins to be in the Mummy Case were damaged during the Second World War. A bomb hit the library next to World Museum and as it went up in flames the fire spread to the wooden roof directly above the gallery where the Egyptian collections were on display. When the roof collapsed, it fell on to numerous decorated wooden coffins and cartonnage. The coffins have obvious signs of fire damage like charred wood and black discolouration but also show signs of water damage: water marks, dissolved gesso and deformation when the coffins were extinguished and lifted out of the wreckage.
Before the war, the records for many of the coffins read along the lines of ‘perfect condition, best example of its time period, etc’. While the coffins are no longer in pristine condition, the conservation team felt it would be misleading to try and hide the destruction that has occurred. The faded designs, dissipating gesso and cracked wood have now become part of the object and its historical context.
Caring and conserving human remains is a complex issue with legal and ethical implications. The mummies were handled and conserved in a respectful manner that focused on a minimal approach. The mummification methods differed widely and spanned across various dynasties. Some were entirely wrapped in bandages, others covered in resin, Ptolemaic royalty had cartonnage and gilding, whereas the Romano-Egyptians had exposed hair and painted features like eyes, fingernails and sandals.
Another aspect to human remains was using the opportunity to learn more about their lives, mummification process and funerary materials. Several mummies were CT-scanned to reveal more through osteology—how old they were at death, if the cause of death was evident—and researchers visited to take samples from their wrappings and coffins. Such research can give insight to the lives led and funerary practices Egyptians followed.
Minimal conservation and reversibility
For decades conservation has emphasised the importance of reversibility, which has been especially pertinent to the Egyptian collections.
It was crucial to undertake minimal treatment and ensure that it was reversible where possible for several reasons: our treatments could affect materials analyses, the treatment might need to be removed in the future and that our objective was not to restore the object but merely stabilise it.
By following this approach there was continuity in our treatments. It also allowed us to prioritise what conservation was necessary, which was beneficial given our time restraints.
Several cases in the new Egypt gallery will display coffins and mummies previously not seen. Some were harmed during World War II and not conserved after, leaving them unstable and unsuitable for exhibition. Others were simply never chosen through lack of space in previous galleries. Creating and building suitable support for the wide range of objects has proved a challenge. Mounts are needed for smaller objects as well as support boards to minimise handling of coffins and mummies, with the added benefit of allowing more freedom in manoeuvring them within the cases.
One of the biggest challenges will be two rows of nesting coffins displayed vertically in the Mummy Case. The display will include the outer coffins, inner coffins and mummy. Some will have a support board while others will have rods that allow the visitors to see the beautifully painted underside of the coffins.
There will be setbacks and surprises when dealing with large conservation and installation projects such as the Ancient Egypt Gallery, but when the gallery is finally finished it will be a rewarding sight to see it open for the public!
Liverpool’s World Museum is readying itself to open the doors of its new Ancient Egypt: A journey through time gallery later this month (28 April), revealing one of the UK’s most significant collections of ancient Egyptian and Nubian antiquities.
The Ancient Egypt gallery will open at World Museum in Liverpool on Friday, 28 April with free admission.
- Lead Image: Mummy mask. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool
- Image 1: photograph of World Museum after World War II damage
- Image 2: a coffin lid before conservation, showing the extent of damage caused by the World War II bombing and fire
- Image 3: the painted foot of a Romano-Egyptian mummy to look like a sandal
- Image 4: the careful lifting of a mummy on to its support board. Pictured (from left to right): Tania Desloge (Project Conservator), Gemma Dolan (Project Conservator), Claire Sedgwick (World Museum Registrar), Tracey Seddon (Head of Organics Conservation), Steve Newman (Head of Metals Conservation) and Alex Blakeborough (Project Conservation Technician)
- Image 5: Leather stola on its previous board
- Image 6: the leather straps after treatment, all reversible if needed.
- Image 7: Testing a coffin lid with its supportive metal foot support Pictured: Tania Desloge
- Image 8: picture of where the nesting coffins will go.
- All images courtesy of National Museums Liverpool (World Museum)