Conservation for Seleucia Show, Part 1

BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology recently opened an exhibition entitled Life in Miniature: Identity and Display at Ancient Seleucia on the Tigris. In the museum’s conservation department, we worked on the preparation and documentation of about 400 objects for this exhibition. Though these are mostly miniatures, an object’s size is by no means an indication of how much time we spend on it! Over the next few months, I’ll talk about the type of work we do with museum artifacts, especially as related to the Seleucia exhibition.

Our job starts by writing a report for each object to document its current condition. This document, complete with photography, serves as a sort of snapshot in time; if disaster strikes, whether in the form of a clumsy but well-meaning visitor, an unexpected tornado, or (more likely) the normal deterioration experienced by all objects over time, we then have a baseline record to determine the exact nature of the changes. The report involves a diagnosis of any problems with either the structure or the surface of the artifact — not unlike when you go to the doctor and he or she diagnoses you with a broken bone. This also allows us to figure out which objects need a little more care. For example, the ceramic jug (below left), with surface glaze that was continuously flaking off, was at higher risk than one on the right, which just had a little dirt.

Seleucia Blog 1
On the left is a glazed ceramic jug (IL2012.04, TMA 1931.243) with areas of actively lifting glaze. On the right is the rear view of a fragment of a Parthian figurine depicting a female musician, with patches of dirt covering much of the surface.

We also document any changes we make to the artifacts. When conservation treatment is required, we keep a detailed record of the reasons and goals for the treatment. We include a list of any questions we tried to answer, and how we investigated them. (More about investigations coming next month!) What did we learn, and how might it affect how we treat the object? What materials did we use? How did we apply those materials to the object?

All of this information is included in the report, like your personal chart at the doctor’s, because it may be important for a future conservator, archaeologist, or other museum staff to know the “personal” history of that artifact when making their own decisions. It’s also important for us to remember that these artifacts already have a very long history: they were everyday objects belonging to people like us about 2,000 years ago.

Conservation research can also contribute other types of knowledge about an object, revealing how it was made and even how it was used during its “life.” Next month, I’ll talk about how we go about these investigations and what kinds of mysteries we may be able to solve!

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