Autumn is in the air. Students are back on campus and we’re working to keep things safe and up to date in the Conservation Lab. Every September we perform an annual review of the lab’s safety protocols, things like our chemical hygiene plan and standard operating procedures (now even more exciting, thanks to COVID-19). We’ve also got lots of training updates going on this month: an ethics and research practice refresher for Suzanne, emergency operations training for both of us, and — special to us at the Kelsey Museum — object handling training! Yes, every practitioner working with Kelsey Museum objects (including us) does a little refresher on safely handling our precious ancient artifacts. All part of keeping it real (and compliant) here at the Kelsey.
Suzanne and I are very excited to be back at the Kelsey doing conservation and collection-focused research a few days a week. Here we are preparing some of the Kelsey’s Terenouthis stelae for photography.
By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation, and Carrie Roberts, Conservator
The inability to travel to the Kelsey’s field sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made us, well, crazy to travel to the Kelsey’s field sites. If you, too, are experiencing serious wanderlust, we invite you to take a quick photographic mini-break with us. Here’s a beautiful photo and something we love about each of the four sites we currently support.
Suzanne loves the incredibly good-looking site of Notion, Turkey. It’s got everything a conservator could want — the romantic ruins of an entire ancient city, lots of conservation work to be done, and a beautiful seaside location.
This spectacular photo of the ancient temple, cemetery, and city site of Jebel Barkal, Sudan, makes Suzanne miss the desert sunshine and all her fellow Jebel Barkal and El-Kurru teammates.
Carrie is inspired by the ancient landscape of Abydos. It’s great to drink a cup of coffee with the team at sunrise and know that the Seti I temple is only a 10-minute walk from the dig house, while the early dynastic tombs below the desert cliffs can be reached in 20 minutes.
At El-Kurru, Carrie loves village life — walking from the house where we live to the temple site and saying hello and how are you to neighbors on the way, then grabbing a snack at the corner store at the end of the day. She also misses the family we live with, especially the kids.
These past few weeks have been horrific, and have made me question things I’d previously taken for granted. Among them is the idea that a person in my profession should remain neutral, objective, and scientific in their approach to preserving cultural heritage. As I see other conservators grapple with ethically problematic projects — like the removal of graffiti left by peaceful protesters — I’m beginning to understand the limits of this approach. None of us can fully separate our work from our values. We conservators can and should be active participants in determining how to make our country’s often painful cultural heritage accessible for the future while supporting the need for people to speak out, reject hate, and heal. And now more than ever we need to ensure that a greater number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are part of this decision-making.
The American Institute of Conservation’s Equity and Inclusion Committee has presented the field with guidelines for how to increase diversity in our profession. The ECPN-HBCU mentorship program, along with similar programs run through the conservation graduate schools, is matching students from underrepresented groups with mentors in an effort to actively recruit at the undergraduate level. And Sanchita Balachandran’s Untold Stories initiative seeks to make the conservation profession more representative of the heritage we preserve. There is still a lot of work to do, and we need to acknowledge the barriers that remain in place for people of color pursuing careers in conservation. We have a responsibility to sustain these efforts, for the good of our profession and for the future.
For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of chairing the annual conference of the American Institute for Conservation. It’s an interesting job in which I get to work with a lot of amazing people, read about all the cool research my colleagues are doing, and — once a year — stand up on multiple different stages, introduce people, hear and see their great papers, and then moderate discussions with them. Every year I get nervous about this because our biggest sessions have around 1,000 people, and both our speakers and our audience members are super smart (and also very opinionated). But then, every year, it’s a great experience and I’m so glad I got to be part of it.
This year, however, there’s a new twist. I bet you can guess what it is! Yes: this year, for reasons of health and safety, we’re holding the conference online. Thankfully, there is a great team at AIC managing all the actual logistics, because I still have a paper copy of the newspaper delivered to my door each morning, I’ve never been on the book of faces, and I don’t tweet or ‘gram. So we’ll see how this goes. Fingers crossed! I’m cheering myself up by thinking about the ~100 hours of great content we’re going to have.
In our opening session this Thursday, we’ll have a talk by NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede, and then five presentations by AIC members on topics of importance to the direction of our discipline: how conservation is / should be presented in public outreach, collections care practices that can help us navigate change, considerations for the future of African collections, reworking science curriculum in conservation training, and methods for ensuring pluralistic, values-based decisions in conservation and collections-care. I’m looking forward to this and many other sessions, and will report back on how they go. Wish us luck!
Greetings, Kelsey Conservation blog readers! I welcome you all to my home office/kitchen table, where I have spent the past several weeks writing an application for a federal grant.
There is a method to my madness. If we are successful, we’ll receive funds that will support research at the Kelsey. But even if we are not successful, the ability to put together a grant and write a compelling narrative is a major skill for any researcher. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:
Once you’ve found the grant you want to apply for, read the solicitation/funding notice a few times. Pretend you are making Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon from scratch, and follow the instructions carefully. Otherwise … catastrophe.
Read successful project narratives from past grant cycles. This is especially important if this is your first time writing a narrative (also see step 3).
The first narrative draft you write is not going to be your best. Do NOT plan to submit the first thing you write! Ask someone to read your proposal. Get their honest opinion. Things will become clearer (and more intelligible to reviewers!) as you write.
Remember that the people reading your narrative aren’t you. They are probably in a different field than you and, unlike you, they are reading a lot of proposals in addition to yours. Make it easy for them.
Don’t overlook your budget. Planning it out can help solidify your thinking around how your project is going to work.
I’ve got Suzanne to thank for a lot of these insights, and for helping me shape my ideas into a story someone might want to read.
Hello, blog readers. I hope you are happy, healthy, and staying safe. This past week felt like about six, huh? It did to me. Work has changed at the Kelsey, as it has at many workplaces around the world. A small example — I usually work here:
And now I’m working here:
It’s a little bit different. Not least because my cat feels that humans in the home should equal very frequent snacks for cats. He’s like, “Look lady, we both know you’re sitting right by the treats cupboard. Would it kill you to serve more snacks? All you’re doing is sitting there like a lump. Look alive and give me more of those #$@%! fish crunchies already!”
Conservators’ main job is to preserve cultural heritage for the future, so it’s reasonable to wonder how I’m doing it from a small corner of my kitchen while trying to ignore Flash Kitty. Truthfully, I’m doing conservation-adjacent work, as are most of my colleagues around the country. Here’s a sample of things I’ll be doing over the next few weeks:
Recording guest lectures about conservation for colleagues’ classes
Taking professional development webinars and online courses
Writing up research into publishable journal articles
Preparing grant applications
Planning future projects
Catching up on all the professional reading and newly published research I usually only barely have time to skim
Other conservators I know are recording the oral histories of senior colleagues, writing up treatment and research protocols, and contributing to conservation-focused wiki entries.
It’s also kind of a stressful time right now. Many of us are either at high-risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or have loved ones who are. So please follow public health advice in order to conserve yourselves and those who are more vulnerable than you are. AND there are things you can do to preserve your mental health and reduce stress. Below are the activities I find most useful.
Exercising: walking outside, jumping rope, doing yoga or high-intensity body weight exercises at home.
Relaxing: UCLA’s mindfulness awareness research center has free guided meditations I like, here.
Connecting with friends and family: I’m not normally a big fan of talking on the phone, but I’m learning to like it now!
Making stuff with my (carefully washed) hands: conservators will be the first to tell you how satisfying it is to do hand work; we do it for our jobs and most of us love it and miss it if we’re away from it too long. Now might be a good time to take up a handicraft or invest time in one you’ve already got going. There are lots of online videos if you want to learn something new and supplies can be ordered, probably even from your local shops.
Conservators wield some impressive photo-processing skills, in no small part because of the extensive photographic documentation we do in our work. We use our image-processing skills for research purposes, too.
Right now I’m taking multispectral photos of limestone funerary stelae from the Roman Egyptian city of Terenouthis so that I can begin to characterize the pigments that were used to paint them. Pigments reflect, absorb, and/or luminesce ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light in characteristic ways, but capturing a good image of these photo-chemical responses can be challenging.
I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in collections storage lately and have noticed something curious: an abundance of pink! Namely, ancient pink pigment. Why is this so interesting? Because the pink most frequently used in the ancient Mediterranean was made of madder root, a plant-based dye that was used to color textiles as well as a pigment on objects.
Like other organic pigments, rose madder is highly light sensitive and prone to fading. The occurrence of rose madder on so many artifacts in the collection surprises me, given what we know about its fugitive nature. Rose madder also has a unique chemical property that causes it to luminesce, or glow, an orange-pink color when exposed to ultraviolet light. A quick look with a UV LED flashlight can help confirm whether or not the pink on an object is madder.
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.
Despite its tendency to fade, I am finding pink on everything from terracotta figurines to marble sculpture to limestone grave markers. I’m also finding it in different hues and on different decorative elements, from flesh tones to jewelry to architecture. It turns out pink is everywhere at the Kelsey, and it is pretty fascinating.
As an archaeological conservator I know that, sometimes, you need to travel to where the work is. This was on my mind last month when I found myself flying back and forth across central campus, between our lab at the Kelsey Museum and the Electron Microbeam Analysis Laboratory (or EMAL). EMAL is a shared access research space within the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and it’s home to a range of instruments used for materials analysis.
I had a clear mission: to identify the composition of modern architectural limes and mortars from Sudan. Suzanne acquired the samples during the 2019 El-Kurru field season, with the goal of determining whether they were safe for use in architectural conservation at the two Sudanese archaeological sites where a Kelsey team is working.
I used x-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy to identify the unknown materials, processes that involve careful sample preparation, instrument setup, and data interpretation. It was time well spent since we now know that some of these materials contain gypsum, which poses risks to archaeological stone. This kind of information is crucial for informed conservation decision-making in the field, and will help shape architectural treatment and preservation plans for the El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal heritage sites.