Introduction to the Conservation of "Mummies: Images of the Afterlife"

A female conservator works on a painted Egyptian coffin.

Conservator Morgan Nau stabilizes lifting paint on the coffin of Pen-Ptah.

Traveling exhibits pose a challenge for museums, especially when particularly fragile objects such as mummies are involved. We want to share our objects and what we’ve found out about them with people outside the museum, but transporting the objects to other museums involves all kinds for risks – traffic accidents, malfunctioning forklifts, road vibration, and freezing winters to name just a few.

The Field Museum has the largest collection of Egyptian and Peruvian mummies in the US. CT scanning the mummies recently led to new discoveries which inspired two temporary exhibits. The displays were so popular that we decided to take the show on the road. Mummies:Images of the Afterlife (‘MIOTA’ for short) will be an exhibit featuring Egyptian and Peruvian mummies and CT scanning.

There’s a lot to do and fixing the mummies to get them ready for the road is job number one. From loose teeth in a skull to every piece of flaking paint on an Egyptian coffin, we need to decide whether specimens can travel and what kind of treatment they need to survive transit.

Cleaning, fixing, and restoring missing areas are done by specially trained conservators  (I’m one!). We do the treatment as well as keeping a comprehensive written and photographic record of what was done and why. We also looked inside the mummies using x-rays and CT scans. The CT scans have been turned into digital interactives to allow non-scientists the opportunity to share in these discoveries.

This blog will discuss the work we’re doing as we get the mummies and other artifacts ready for their multi-year tour. So stay tuned! If you want to see the treatment in action, we’re on display in the Regenstein Lab on the upper floor of the museum. (Just don’t tap on the glass.)