Monday, 26 January 2015

MYSTERIOUSLY POOR CONSERVATION: KING TUT'S MASK

MUSEUM MYSTERIES / CONSERVATION TIPS & TRICKS

BY: MADELINE SMOLARZ

Although it is a Monday and I am supposed to have written a Museum Mysteries article for you, this particular topic actually overlaps with the other column I write, Conservation Tips and Tricks. Therefore, you are getting a two-for-one deal with my crossover article today - think of it as a thank you for your loyalty as a Musings reader!

I will be presenting a bare-bones outline of the plot of this particular mystery, one that has shaken the museum world soundly since it surfaced last week. I hope that by presenting the information that is available to the public as objectively as possible will help you to come to your own conclusions as to what truly happened at The Egyptian Museum last summer.

Try not to cringe, friends. Let's just say that bad days don’t get much worse than this.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. Source.

Exposition: The setting is The Egyptian Museum located in Cairo, Egypt. The exact timeline of this story is unclear, but we do know that the events of concern to us here took place sometime during the summer of 2014.

Rising Action: Work was being carried out in The Egyptian Museum around the approximately 3,000 year-old funerary mask of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut, on display.

The mask is typically displayed in a central part of The Egyptian Museum that experiences high visitor traffic due to its reputation as one of the world's most famous ancient relics. Source.

A close-up photograph of the mask from February 2010, prior to its recent repairs. Source.

Climax: The braided blue and gold beard on King Tut’s mask became detached from the artefact’s chin when it was nearly dropped, when the mask was removed to replace lighting in its case, when it or its case was being cleaned, or when the beard was purposefully removed because it came loose (there are conflicting accounts).

Falling Action: One or more curators quickly and poorly glued the beard back onto the mask using a substance called epoxy when a museum official ordered it to be repaired as soon as possible so the mask could be put back on display. When some excess epoxy was found to have dripped onto the surface of the mask, a curator tried to use a spatula-like tool to remove it, which resulted in visible scratches on the artefact’s surface.

Epoxy is an essentially irreversible adhesive that has a high property for attaching. It is usually used for repairing metal and stone artefacts but is unfortunately known to yellow over time. Source.

A photo of the mask from January 23, 2015 with the repair site clearly visible. Source.

Resolution: There does not seem to be a definite resolution to this story as of yet, especially since the events surrounding the actual detachment and repair of the mask remain cloudy. An investigation is apparently underway. Some news outlets report that there may be legal consequences for those involved as Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is looking to submit a mismanagement complaint.

This recently-circulating photo seems to depict a man gluing the beard back on the mask. Source.

So, what do you believe happened? Who is the real villain here and who should bear the blame: the Egyptian Museum, the Museum’s curatorial department, the source of the order to repair the mask as soon as possible, the person who initially used the epoxy to reattach the beard, or the curator who tried to scrape the excess epoxy off of the mask and thus damaged it even further? Perhaps this mystery should simply be used a prime example of when conservation should be left up to… well, conservators.

3 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. It definitely was disappointing to a lot of people when the story was first released, which to me demonstrates the importance that certain artefacts carry for people across the world. I have now heard that there are plans to try and remedy the damage, so that is a positive that everyone can focus on!

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  2. Thank you, Madeline, for posting this - I was listening to CBC radio a few days ago about this story and, as you said, it is amazing how passionate people were about this conservation issue. You are so right to say that some objects (due to their perceived value or their public representation) become almost sacred and even people who do not typically get involved in conversations about museums become invested and caring.

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