Preserving Cultural Objects

A Conversation with Judy Jungels, Conservator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

HMSC Connects! Podcast Episode 24


Jennifer Berglund, Judy Jungels


Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Happy New Year, everyone. All of us at HMSC hope you had the loveliest of holidays. To kick off 2021, I'm speaking today, Judy Jungels, a conservator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology who's responsible for preparing, protecting and conserving the museum's vast collection of artifacts from cultures around the world. I was curious to know what goes into being a conservator, and how she became one in the first place. Here she is. Judy Jungles Welcome to the show!


Judy Jungels 01:18

Thank you for having me.


Jennifer Berglund 01:23

What does it mean to be a conservator at a museum?


Judy Jungels 01:28

Yeah, so a lot goes into being a conservator at the museum where certainly one of our main responsibilities is to be a steward to the collection, and to look after the preservation of the objects for long term. So, we're constantly looking at overall conditions that the objects are stored in, how they're stored. We teach object handling workshops so that the staff understand how to handle the objects very carefully, and they don't get damaged. We do research into materials and technology to understand objects when we're doing research for exhibits or papers. We often work very closely with objects, so we may physically look at the object under a microscope to see it at the micro level, or take a small sample to understand the material that it was made out of, and as part of the treatment process, we handle objects very carefully with our hands, and so, sometimes we'll have to get really close down to the object and repair a tear, or mend a pot, or make a fill, so that kind of thing.


Jennifer Berglund 02:35

The thing that's so interesting about conservation, I think, is that it's part art and part science, too. It's it's like half having this deep understanding and appreciation of the artistry that went into some of these objects and artifacts, but also an appreciation of the materials that they're made out of.


Judy Jungels 02:54

Right. Yes, absolutely. That's a great way of summarizing.


Jennifer Berglund 02:58

It's just really fascinating, just how it combines so many different fields. I mean, you mentioned all of these different instruments that you use to analyze the materials and see what they're made of. Walk me through how you would approach an object.


Judy Jungels 03:13

When we bring an object into the lab, I think the first thing that we do is we spend a lot of time looking at that object. So, we'll look at it under the microscope, we'll maybe look at it in UV lighting, at least with some kind of magnification to study the object, and we'll start to do what we call a condition report. So, we'll write notes about what we're seeing, describe how it was made, and if it's something that's really a new material that we haven't worked with that much before, we may also go out and do some research on the object, so we may look at the literature in terms of conservation literature of how these objects have been treated, and that's how we sort of start to develop our treatment plan. We also, before we do anything with an object, we always take before treatment photography, so we document sort of every stage of what the object goes through when it's being treated. So we'll have those documentary photographs in our written report, and then we will start to think about how are we going to treat this object, and what materials are safe to use on this object. So for instance, if it's something that we need to do testing, like say, we're going to use a solvent to clean the metal, then we might need to do very tiny spot tests in a very discreet area of the object under the microscope and just see how that material interacts with the solvent because we don't want to do any damage. So, we're making a very slow sort of judgment call as we proceed through the treatment decisions.


Jennifer Berglund 04:55

You grew up in a household that celebrated the arts. Tell me about your family, and how their artistic leanings influenced you.


Judy Jungels 05:03

Oh, sure, yeah. So my husband always jokes that, you know, there's so many artists in my family that you throw a rock, you're definitely going to hit one. But um, so my parents, my father really started off in English, and he worked in the academic area, but he was always interested in poetry, and since I can remember, he always had a camera wrapped around his shoulder. And through his studies in English, he was at the University of Buffalo, and they had a media studies department, and he became really involved with video at that time in the 1970s, and that sort of led to him, eventually, teaching in the communications department and making his own documentarys. So, he's very interested in social justice, and does a lot of travel in Mexico and makes documentaries there. My mother taught art therapy. So, she taught at one of the colleges in Buffalo, and she did that for a long time, but she was also always a maker of objects as well. She had studied fine art as an undergraduate, and I remember just around the house, so many things that she made like mosaics, and I don't think they had a lot of money back then, so they may do with, you know, covering the furniture with different fabrics, and she made this absolutely incredible dollhouse for us when we were growing up that was made out of an old medicine cabinet that was a wooden medicine cabinet, and she divided into different rooms, and the rooms were sort of replicas of the house that we lived in at the time. So, it had a window that looked out into our actual backyard in the living room, and she always loved hardware stores, so she'd go and collect little bits and pieces and make the bathroom fixtures out of that, and that kind of thing. One thing that I always remember was getting really excited to go to see my cousins at Christmas time because we would go there, and there was always lots of interesting activities. Like one time, my uncle decided he was going to make the Nutcracker film, and so he had all of us participating in, you know, acting in his film, and you know, I was kind of the shy kid, so I was a mouse. Yeah, it was fun, though, and I was actually talking to my father about it recently and saying, "Oh, I'd love to see that film again."


Jennifer Berglund 07:23

Eventually, when you went to college, you decided to pursue Fine Arts, then you continued in grad school. And it was there that you sort of, by chance, discovered conservation. And this is an interesting story. Can you tell that story?


Judy Jungels 07:38

Yeah, sure. Yeah. So, I mean, after I had finished my MFA, I was still in the department quite a bit, working on my own work, and I had some commission work I was doing, and at the time, there was a lot of conservation of outdoor sculpture going on in the city of Buffalo, and I had sort of regular routes that I ran throughout Buffalo, and we lived in the city, and it was pretty close to what was called Delaware Park. So, it's a great place to run, but scattered throughout the park are bronze sculptures. There was a really steep hill that we used to call a dead man's hill, because it's, like, a killer, and I would usually, like, run up that hill, and, you know, try to sprint up it as best I could, and at the end of that hill is a sculpture of Lincoln, and so at one point, this team of conservators was out there working on this Lincoln sculpture, and I, you know, stopped to take a breath, and, you know, went up and talked to them and learned about what they were doing, and they were super generous in telling me about their methods, and I was really intrigued, because, you know, I learned some skills in sculpture centered around bronze. So I was familiar with a lot of the processes of, you know, cleaning the sculpture, either with materials such as sand or walnut, shell, or glass. And this sort of led me to it was a course that was being taught in New York City by a former graduate of the Buffalo Art Conservation program, and he taught an outdoor sculpture course, and so I went and took that course, with him and learn more about treating outdoor sculpture.


Jennifer Berglund 09:24

These days, you work with a lot of different kinds of materials and objects, really anything that can be found at an archaeological site. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the different kinds of objects and materials you work with, and which objects and materials have you found most interesting?


Judy Jungels 09:42

Every time an object comes in lab, you pretty much fall in love with it. I mean, because you get to discover new things about that object, and one of the objects that I would say was really quite interesting for me recently was a dog sled. At the time, we were working with the scientist to utilize a technique called peptide mass fingerprinting, and this is a type of analysis for protein identification. So, you can identify the family of the animal, and sometimes to the species level. Since this sled is made out of so many different materials--it has skin, it has ivory, it has bone, it has a antler, and it also has wood--it was a great object to do some peptide mass fingerprinting on. So, I ended up taking samples of this one section of the sled, which is like a square section, and it was really hard to identify by looking at it because it almost looks like deteriorated wood, but it's much more porous, and so we took a sample of that, and it ended up being Right Whale. Oh, yeah, it was great because although I knew, you know, from analysis, it's Right Whale, I'm like, "what part of Right Whale is it?" You know. And so, yeah, it was really convenient to be close to the Museum of Comparative Zoology because you can go over and visit their lab and look at bones and animals, and that's really helpful in terms of identifying, structurally, what something looks like. We also took other samples, like, there's a shoe on the sled that's made out of ivory, and it's made out of small pieces of ivory that are just joined together, and some of them sort of have a twisted structure, and so when we analyze that it turned out to be narwhal ivory, and then other parts are smoother and not as twisted looking, and that turned out to be walrus ivory.


Jennifer Berglund 11:33

Well, that's incredible. So you have all these materials, but it's really interesting because, from a cultural perspective, it also tells you something, right? It tells you about how people of the past interacted with their environment.


Judy Jungels 11:49

Yeah, yeah. I mean, the sled has is a really interesting history in that, you know, it was made by the Inuit in northwestern Greenland, and they sort of lived in a very isolated area at the time, and there wasn't a lot of wood available, and so parts of the sled are made out of wood, but I think they really look like scraps from like ships or things that were left behind. So, they were really reliant upon the materials that were available to them, until, you know, explorers came in and brought new materials, like, this sled was actually collected by Admiral Perry when he went to Greenland to do explorations.


Jennifer Berglund 12:26

For our listeners who aren't familiar with Admiral Perry, who is that?


Judy Jungels 12:29

So, he's an explorer that explored Greenland, and is said to have discovered the North Pole, although there's some controversy over it. Putnam, who was the Director of the Peabody Museum way back in the late 1800s, had hired Admiral Perry to collect objects for the World's Fair, and so the sled and many other objects came back to the museum during that time period, but also some went directly to Chicago, and then ended up in the collection of the Field Museum. So, he brought back lots of objects from that culture.


Jennifer Berglund 13:02

So, you identified all of these different parts, and you learned all these these different things about the materials used for the sled, b ut you had to conserve it too, right?


Judy Jungels 13:14



Jennifer Berglund 13:15

Walk me through how you developed a conservation plan.


Judy Jungels 13:18

I was looking, really, to preserve everything as much as possible, but it was really heavily coated with dust and debris, partially from being in the museum, but partly as the life of an object that's been used numerous times, and so it had sort of an oily debris all over the surface, and there was also spots of like salts and that kind of thing. And so, my approach was to take a sort of minimalist approach in terms of just cleaning the sled, and preserving as much of the historical content as possible, so I didn't really want to over clean it because maybe the oil that they used on the sled was part of the history of the use of that collection, and so I didn't want to change anything dramatically. In the case of the sled, it was definitely very carefully cleaned with a vacuum and soft brushes to remove all the surface dirt.


Jennifer Berglund 14:14

A very gentle vacuum.


Judy Jungels 14:15

Yeah, very gentle vacuum. So, a vacuum at low suction. So we have specialized vacuums that have a HEPA filter, and we can adjust them to a really low setting so that they gently vacuum the surface, and, usually what we do is we'll hold the tip sort of away from the object, and have a soft brush and brush the debris into the vacuum. The other treatments that were really needed were some stabilization of some of the hide straps that had broken over time. Most of that was done with adhesives that we commonly use in conservation, so we did some testing of the best adhesive to use on this particular hide, and I ended up using an adhesive that's commonly used on leather repairs. We often use Japanese paper that we tone to sort of have the same coloring of the object that we're applying it to, and that adds sort of strength to a repair. So, if you have a torn area that just butts up right next to each other, it's good to have a backing that can kind of reinforce that tear.


Jennifer Berglund 15:19

A lot of people, I think, assume you just sort of place an object in a case, or hang an object in a case. I don't think a lot of people think about the fact that, no, it's this major process.


Judy Jungels 15:30

Yeah, it's really important for us to understand you know how an object is going to be displayed when we do the conservation treatment because we may need to manipulate an object, or reshape it in order to have it understood in terms of what the stakeholders or the curator would like to see, and we have to fit it, sort of, into a certain space of the design, so we may need to manipulate it, like I had this really interesting gutskin coat. The coat was really rather flat when it came to the conservation lab, but through a process called humidification, we can put something that is either paper or skin into a chamber, and it slowly add humidity to the material, and so material that might be stiff or brittle starts to become more flexible. And so then we can start to reshape that object back into a form that is more like how it would have been worn originally. So, in the case of this gutskin coat it was very flat because it had been stored for so many years, and so I put it into the humidity chamber and slowly molded it back into shape so that it could fit onto a mount and be safely mounted for exhibitions.


Jennifer Berglund 16:40

So cool. And how long did that take? It's a beautiful object that's on display in All the World is Here that all of our listeners out there should check out once we're open again.


Judy Jungels 16:49

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, so it's really a slow process in that, you might put it in the chamber to do the overall humidification, but you only have a certain amount of time that you can safely manipulate the material before it goes back to being much more brittle and less flexible, so then we often do something called local humidification, where we do a layer of materials that add moisture just to a small section of the object over a period of time, and then we can slowly manipulate that area, and then, part of the process is, sometimes, we make the internal mounts in the Conservation Department, either in collaboration with Exhibits, or we may make them out of materials that we have. So, we start to shape the object around that mount. In the case of that gutskin coat, it was sort of a tight fit in the case, so we had to use magnets at the bottom to kind of pull the bottom in so that it would have enough space in the case.


Jennifer Berglund 17:48

What do you mean by use magnets to pull it?


Judy Jungels 17:50

So yeah, what we did was I took a very thin sheet of polyethylene film, and I sort of strung it between the bottom of the coat, so at the opening where the bottom is, and it was sort of out further than I wanted it to be, so I wanted to pull it in slightly, so then you apply a magnet to one side, on the outside and inside to hold the polyethylene sheet, and then you string it to the other side, put a small magnet on each side, and that sort of pulls it together. Magnets are wonderful for finding mounting solutions.


Jennifer Berglund 18:24

I think it's interesting that you as a conservator, you interface in so many different areas of the whole exhibit-making, curation, history. Everything that an object touches, you are involved with somehow. I think it's just fascinating that you get to be involved in the life of this object from research, to the science of conservation, to the display, and the maintenance of it while it's on display. Such a cool gig.


Judy Jungels 18:59

Yeah, no, I agree. It's, I mean, I love working on exhibitions, because, you know, I see the object really up close, and sort of looking at it in a micro level. And then, the object goes through this sort of process where I work very closely with the mount-maker, and he constructs this beautiful mount, and I can see it in a new way. Then all the objects get to interact with each other in this new environment, and they have a story that's being told about them, and it's just wonderful. I think exhibits are amazing.


Jennifer Berglund 19:32

I like how you just described that-- how the all of the objects are sort of interacting with each other. It's like, within a case, the objects sort of create their own ecosystem, and, in the sense that they're, they're interacting with each other, which also brings up an interesting point, because thinking about how we put cases together, we can't display certain objects together because of the materials they're made of.


Judy Jungels 19:56

Right. Absolutely. Yeah, so one of the jobs of the conservator is to really look closely at the exhibit layout plan so that we know what objects are going in cases together because some types of materials interact with each other, or they need different environments. For instance, like metals are better off in a more dry environment, whereas organic materials, we need to have enough humidity in the case. There can be materials that are more modern, such as plastics that can offgas, and because the case is often a sealed, closed environment, interactions occur more quickly in that environment, so we're trying to create an environment that has less pollutants and less harmful, sort of, off gassing by using good materials in the construction of the exhibit case, sealing it off to the outside environment. But also, we have to be careful what objects we put together.


Jennifer Berglund 20:53

What are you working on now?


Judy Jungels 20:55

So, right now I'm working on two projects, and the one project is preparing objects for an upcoming exhibition, which is hopefully going to open sometime in May. It has a variety of really interesting objects. There's woven textiles, there's ceramics, this beautiful carved bracelet that's made from shell, and we have a lot of obsidian objects, a mirror, lots of interesting objects. There's also some large objects in the show, such as plaster chacmool, which is a replica in a sense that it was cast from what the original was.


Jennifer Berglund 21:35

And what's the chacmool?


Judy Jungels 21:36

So, it's a Mayan sculpture reclining on its back, and it has a bowl on the top of it for offerings,


Jennifer Berglund 21:44

What kinds of techniques are you having to use,?


Judy Jungels 21:46

I'm doing a lot of planning for how the objects are going to be mounted because, with textiles, it's often complicated, and that you have to plan ahead how they will be supported in an exhibition.


Jennifer Berglund 21:58

Like physically supported you mean, so like, propped up in a case?


Judy Jungels 22:02



Jennifer Berglund 22:07

What's your favorite part of the job?


Judy Jungels 22:10

I love lots of aspects of my job. I think I'm really lucky in that, you know, the Peabody Museum has this amazing collection of diverse materials from all over the world, and so I get to treat many types of objects, and I'd say that one of my favorite things is definitely working on exhibitions because I get to see the materials go through that transformation, but I also love, because we have such an extensive collection, we will loan objects out to other institutions, and part of the job of a conservator is sometimes to prepare those objects for the loan, but we also sometimes travel with the objects to the next institution and sort of oversee their installation so that we know that they're in a safe environment, and they are being, you know, taken care of. And so, part of that is really fun because I get to go behind the scenes in lots of different museums and see how they carry out their process, and I've learned a lot from that because every museum has sort of its own way of doing things and it's really fascinating to see it developed from, you know, empty cases filled with objects and exciting text.


Jennifer Berglund 23:27

Judy Jungles, thank you so much for being here. This has been fascinating.


Judy Jungels 23:30

Thank you for having me. It was really enjoyable.


Jennifer Berglund 23:42

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Judy Jungles and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology for their wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!


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