Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In defence of Egyptian conservators

Reading about the botched beard reattachment job on King Tut in the London Times on Friday, I had my doubts as to whether this was really the work of my conservator colleagues in Egypt. So I am glad to read in today’s Art Daily that the director of the Egyptian Museum, Dr Mahmoud al-Helwagy has denied that conservators were involved, strongly defending them, saying “This is illogical and inconceivable. These are conservation workers, not carpenters.”

But let’s recap on what we do know of the story so far (which I suspect has some way to run yet). It appears that a maintenance worker noted a light was out in the glass case that houses King Tutankhamun’s funerary mask in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, which  just happens to be one of the great treasures of the world. In the process of removal, the case hit the mask and it almost fell off its pedestal, saved by a lunging curator who grabbed it in his arms. Unfortunately the lunge was just not quite delicate enough (such being the nature of lunges) and the beard fell off. I can’t imagine what language was used at the time but it would have been a jaw dropping moment for all involved.

Whereupon all hell clearly broke loose, the loudest voice being the one that yelled ‘pass me the epoxy quickly’. A hasty repair was executed and the beard was soon back in its rightful position. Two problems folks, however, arise. Number one is that, although epoxy is used in conservation, it is extremely difficult to reverse and should only be used when no other adhesive can take the strain and after much discussion around the proposed treatment. Secondly and more obviously, the repair is clearly crooked, which is what alerted the outside world to the problem in the first place.

How can this happen, you rightly ask? Well, firstly, accidents do happen - check out my blog post from February 2010 for a few examples. Secondly, involvement of non-conservators invariably spells disaster. Again, witness the story of our old friend Cecilia Giménez and her restoration of the face of Jesus in the Spanish church of Santuario de la Misericordia near Zaragoza (September 2012). 

And thirdly, this is not a unique example of such an experience. Some years ago, an Australian conservator friend of mine couriered a clay artefact to an exhibition in Europe, seeing it placed in position and the display case locked, before she set off for her hotel.  Returning the next day to the exhibition for a final look before she headed home, she was surprised to see the display case had been moved. Checking the artefact through the glass, she detected firstly a crack and then some excess glue on the surface. The sorry tale was soon revealed – the display case had to be moved after my friend left, the artefact fell over and broke in two in the process and a panicking curator applied some Supaglue to try and make good.

But don’t blame it on the conservators!

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