In recent news, the burial mask of Tutankhamun once again made headlines across the world when the beard was somehow “broken off” during an incident at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and hastily, incorrectly, repaired by museum staff. The plethora of news articles, interviews, and press conferences regarding the incident makes it extremely difficult to uncover what really happened; so here, for your reading pleasure, is the play by-play account of one of the most disputed works of conservation in recent history.
Before we get in to the story, it is VITAL that all understand that the mask entered the museum with the beard SEPARATED from the body of the mask. Prior to the incident in question, the two pieces of the mask were being held together by a properly applied adhesive as the mask sat on display. (Before that time, in fact, the beard had been displayed separated from the mask for many years.)
Now, to the incident—after reading the veritable glut of related news coverage and following the trail of live updates via Facebook and twitter, I have constructed the following sequence of events:
For an unconfirmed reason (some stating that the lights of the case needed repair) it was necessary that the mask be removed from the case. While removing the mask, the museum staff member handled the mask inappropriately and the beard was once again separated from the main body of the mask. Although the mask should have been taken to a secure conservation location so that repairs could be performed, museum staff were concerned that the mask would not be ready for immediate display if they followed this protocol. In a hasty attempt to address this concern, the museum staff used epoxy glue to re-adhere the beard to the rest of the mask. Due to its chemical properties (which I will not even attempt to explain because I am NOT a conservator) the epoxy was clearly, tragically, visible after the repair.
There were further rumors that epoxy had dripped on to the face of the mask itself, and in their attempt to clean the drips off the mask, the museum staff had scratched the mask irreversibly.
When the news broke that the mask had been damaged, the press and museum world flew into a frenzy. There were conflicting reports coming out simultaneously, museum officials were denying the breakage had even occurred, and the state of the mask was still unknown.
The Egyptian Museum requested the assistance of Christian Eckmann, a conservator specializing in archaeological glass and metal objects, and after careful examination of the mask, Eckmann held a press conference to share his findings:
“the mask was touched and the beard fell… due to the glue which was used during the first restoration of the mask in 1941”. He said he was unaware what kind of epoxy was used in the repair, but epoxy “is not the best solution” to fix artifacts even if it is often used. However, the glue was applied improperly and its remains were visible on the braided beard piece, he said. “It can be reversed. It has to be done very carefully, but it is reversible,” said Eckmann, who has now been appointed by the antiquities ministry to oversee the mask’s repair. (courtesy of france24.com)
*Eckmann did acknowledge the scratch on the face of the mask, but he determined it is impossible to identify if the scratch is ancient, recent, or modern, at the present moment.
Moving forward, a committee of experts comprised of conservators, archaeologists, and natural scientists will be formed in order to develop a plan for proper conservation of the mask. If nothing else, this incident has brought to light the importance of proper conservation. Although the most popular objects of every museum, like the mask of King Tut, inspire tourists and bring a significant number of visitors to the museum’s city, the mission of a museum is to showcase the objects AND care for them; in order to care for them properly, we must take the time to conserve them appropriately out of the public eye.
Tut, tut, we say to you, Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Tut, tut.