Even the long-dead must wait during a pandemic.
“Poor mummies,” Mimi Leveque said. She is a conservator, one of a small group of experts in the country who work on ancient mummies for museums and scholarly displays. Many conservators have been sidelined by the COVID-19 restrictions.
In Leveque’s case, she was scheduled to fly from Boston to help restore two mummies at a museum in Atlanta in June, a trip aborted by pandemic restrictions. The mummies, dug up in the late 1800s from a cemetery in Egypt and likely sold to wealthy tourists, still wait.
“I fully understand the state of the world right now,” Leveque said. Layoffs and furloughs have rippled widely through the museum world, and many worry they won’t be going back.
Such as Leveque’s three-person department at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where she worked for 16 years. She was among 38 museum staff members laid off in June. “My whole department was wiped out,” she said. “I know this is permanent.”
Leveque, a veteran conservator who has worked on dozens of mummies worldwide, has lined up consultant work for when pandemic restrictions ease, but others may not be so fortunate.
“Many museums are really undergoing a tremendous financial strain and burden because of the pandemic,” said Pamela Hatchfield, former president of the American Institute for Conservation. She took early retirement from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in August when the museum laid off 57 employees and another 56 retired. The museum closed from March to September and reopened with only some of their exhibits as they limited the number of visitors.
“We’ve all been tremendously affected, and conservators are certainly not alone in that,” she said. “But of tremendous concern to all of us is what the museum world is going to look like in the future?”
Conservators are in charge of cleaning, restoring and stabilizing all sorts of art objects, not just mummies. Curators, a more well-known word, are typically art or history scholars who create exhibits. Conservators are “the doctors for the arts. We are the people who do all of the hands-on work,” Leveque said. “We’re expected to understand the chemistry of it, as well as its art history.”
The field has never been well-funded, those in the field say. Yet their positions can often be cut without an immediate impact visible to the public.
“It’s all the preventive work,” said Molly Gleeson, a conservator for eight years at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. “It’s the monitoring the environment, monitoring what the temperature and relative humidity are in storage, monitoring the light exposure that objects are getting, making sure insects aren’t coming into the building and damaging collections.
“That kind of work is difficult when you’re not able to let a lot of staff into the building,” she said. “It’s been a really tough time for everybody, of course, but the cultural heritage sector — museums, libraries, cultural sites — has really been impacted.”
Leveque was working on an archaeology site in Syria in the 1970s when the project’s conservator fell ill. She stepped in, and was hooked on the work. She is not as stuffy as the mummies she works on. She refers to one as “a sweetie.” And she confesses she enjoys a good mummy movie — “The first, with Boris Karloff. Seriously, that’s the best.”
She has “treated,” as she puts it, 27 Egyptian mummies, examined 14 others, and worked on assorted mummified animals and almost-dust Peruvians. She has been interested in it ever since she was a child and her mother read her the story of the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s 3,200-year-old tomb (“I can still remember the words. They get down there, and they’re just about to open it up, and Lord Carnarvon said, ‘What can you see?’ And Carter replies, ‘Wooonderful things.'” She draws out the word with delight.)
She does not, for the record, attribute the troubles of conservators to any mythical curse of mummies: “Nah. Not buying it. If it were true, I’d be dead by now.”
But she is dead serious about the approach she takes to the work. Mummy restoration should be intended to pay respect to the departed, she insisted, and she is helping develop professional standards to insure that. Some of the work of a conservator is like attacking a giant puzzle.
Leveque helped restore what is probably the oldest Egyptian mummy in North America — a mummy 4,000 years old at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta that had been bought in Egypt by an Emory professor and stayed in a crate in a storeroom for 90 years at the university’s museum. The mummy was in shreds; its linen tattered, its head in a separate box, other bones missing.
“They lifted the lid, I looked down, and it looked like someone had crushed a bag of potato chips and just sprinkled them around.” Leveque recalled.
She and Emory conservator Renee Stein, with a team of experts and students, worked for a year, meticulously cleaning and reassembling, making puffy pads of polyester batting to support bones that had caved to gravity, resculpting missing bones with epoxy putty from skeleton models.
But other projects with mummies are taken with an approach of minimal tampering to respect the departed.
“The work I am doing is to restore dignity to this individual,” she said. “Amongst humans is an overriding sense that the bodies of the deceased deserve respect.”
That often involves a careful construction of supports to keep the skeleton intact, to slow down the inevitability of gravity and decay.
“I think that they should be in as stable of condition as possible, so that they’re not continuing to deteriorate, and as presentable as possible so that this isn’t a ghoulish display,” Leveque said. “There are museums I’ve worked for where the linens have been ripped off the mummies, and they’re displaying them as though you were looking into a looted tomb. I find that unacceptable.”
While conservators typically work on a variety of art objects, Leveque and others estimated there are “no more than a handful” who regularly work on mummies. There is no firm count of mummies in this country — tourists to Egypt in the 1800s bought mummies as souvenirs — although Leveque thinks the U.S. mummy population is in the hundreds.
Aside from the preservation work not happening now, Leveque said she wonders about training the next generation of conservators during this stay-at-home period.
“How do you teach hands-on conservation mostly virtually? I don’t know,” she said. “At some point, you and the object have to get together in the same room.”
Gleeson, who helps oversee 21 mummies at the Penn Museum, agreed.
“We are in a crisis right now,” she said. But she sees “some silver lining.” Many museums are developing more online tools to reach the public. And while being at home, “we have been able to spend more time, reflecting on other aspects of our work.”
Leveque is quick to note that many other people are more affected by the pandemic.
“How can I feel bad for myself when I know that there are people truly suffering right now,” she said. “I mean, my patients are dead for a very, very long time.” They won’t go anywhere.
The mummies she had planned to restore in Atlanta were acquired from a California exhibit by the Carlos Museum. They are among many dozens of mummies sold by the Egyptian government to raise money, and Leveque said she cannot restore these two for the museum, which still is closed to the public, until travel is safer. The mummies also wait, locked in the dark they knew for millennia.
“I know that the mummies that are waiting for me are stable,” she said. “They’re in a climate-controlled storage area, and nothing is happening to them that hasn’t already happened. It’s just that I would like to be able to get rid of the dust of ages and work on them and make them a little bit more happy.”