At Penn Museum, unveiling the secrets of mummies — while you watch

It’s Monday; do you know where your mummy is?

Conservators at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are working on several ancient Egyptian mummies, right out where visitors can see them.

In one of the museum’s cavernous galleries, behind glass, is a scientist named Molly Gleason. She works inside the new Artifact Lab, otherwise known as the fishbowl. She has a microscope, a light table, a collection of chemicals and solvents, and some precision hand instruments. For a few hours every week day, visitors can watch Gleason (or one of her colleagues) working on the 15 Egyptian artifacts that have been brought up out of storage.

“One of them is a falcon mummy. Which is really cool,” said Gleason, who was recently hired to inhabit the fishbowl. “We actually don’t know if there is a falcon inside it. Part of what I’m doing is stabilizing it so we can X-ray it and see if there is a bird inside.”

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Periodically, Gleason opens a glass windows to answer questions about the falcon or the other things in the lab: a human adult mummy, a child mummy, small carved statuary, and more than a dozen 4,000-year-old coffin boards that have been discovered to have symbols carved their hidden edges.

There are 40,000 Egyptian objects in the museum’s archive; most were collected before 1967, when the Egyptian government began insisting that all excavated artifacts remain in Egypt. Even though researchers have had at least 45 years to examine the collection, curator David Silverman says there is always more to learn if you look hard enough.

“If I can’t get out in the field — which is often the case because I’m teaching, or there’s a war — I can excavate in the storage area,” Silverman said. “I’ve got 40,000 and there’s always something you can find.”

Silverman says the Artifact Lab is an evolving experiment; the work being done in the fishbowl will change according to the needs of researchers and the interest of the public.


Someone will be working in the Artifact Lab every day the museum is open, and will entertain questions weekdays at 11:15 a.m. and 2 p.m., and weekends at 1 and 3:30 p.m.

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