Conservator Allison Lewis cleans a cartonnage mummy foot case

I’ve always found small exhibitions far better experiences than blockbusters. You generally don’t need to jostle with the crowds and you can concentrate on understanding a few objects, rather than be overwhelmed by hundreds.

The Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the UC Berkeley campus offers just such a treat with The Conservator’s Art: Preserving Egypt’s Past, which opens today and runs until spring next year. It shows 65 objects from the 17,000 ancient Egyptian items in its collection (a small fraction of the over 4 million objects in total, scattered over four buildings in Berkeley and Richmond). It’s also, as the title makes clear, an introduction to the meticulous work of conservators with ancient treasures.

Many of the objects are wondrous in themselves. Even though I’ve been to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I’d never seen a crocodile mummy before. The exhibition contains two, including one where CT scans show the details of what’s inside wrappings. The cost of eight CT scans was $12,000.

You’ll learn, in fact, not just about what conservators do, but what their work costs. A tiny bronze forked butt required $5,080 worth of work: 44 hours by a conservator ($4,180), $100 for X-ray fluorescence analysis of the metal, and $800 for four uses of X-ray diffraction analysis. The museum is also maintaining a conservators’ blog for the exhibition. You can find out all you’d want to know about doing a CT scan of a crocodile mummy, for example.

The exhition is supported in part by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), in part as a memorial to Egyptologist and Berkeley Professor Cathleen “Candy” Keller, who died last year and was originally lead curator for the show.

The Hearst’s Egyptian collection was formed when Phoebe Hearst met archaeologist George A. Reisner on her first trip to Egypt in early 1899. Between 1899 and 1905, Reisner collected approximately 17,000 objects, ranging from the Predynastic to Coptic times (over 4,000 years). Almost all of his finds were impeccably documented in notes, maps, plans, and photographs, some of which are in the exhibition.

The Conservator’s Art is free to visit.

Photo by Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...