A New Addition from our Old Collection

Every museum strives to enrich its collection even further, but acquiring new objects is not always possible. Luckily, our storerooms have much to offer and with new research and conservation we are able to supplement the galleries with interesting and beautiful objects that have never been on display before. Recently, we had the opportunity to conserve an extraordinary plaster mummy mask from the Old Kingdom and we are especially excited about being able to share this mask with you because it is so rare. The fragility of the material, plaster, is probably the reason for the scarcity of such masks today.

Mummy Mask of a Man Consisting of the Face Only

Mummy Mask of a Man Consisting of the Face Only. Plaster, Lips: 1 1/8 x 4 1/4 x 4 3/4 in. (2.9 x 10.8 x 12 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 48.183a-d.

Such masks appear to have been created by coating the linen wrappings on the head of a mummy with plaster. So, while it’s not a “death mask” in the modern Western sense of the term, it was meant to portray the deceased. Only a few such plaster masks are known, and most of them date to the Old Kingdom (circa 2675–2170 B.C.E.). Very soon after, plaster masks went out of fashion, and were replaced by more elaborate and durable masks or head coverings made of wood, cartonnage and other materials.

This mask was excavated in tomb G 6104A in Giza, Egypt, by the Harvard-Boston expedition. In 1948 the fragile mask arrived to the Brooklyn Museum in four crumbling pieces. In this state, the fragments did not appear to amount to much of an image, and were carefully placed in our storerooms. But, with the wonderful work of our conservators, who put the pieces back together, the mask revealed a delicate face.

We discussed the best way to display this wonderful object. Although we have a pretty good idea of the original appearance of the mask, we simply could not know what the missing pieces were like. For this reason, we did not to fill in any of the losses. This meant that a hole in the middle of the mask would be very apparent and the color and kind of fabric for the backing had to be chosen. After some discussion, we finally decided on a fabric resembling the appearance of mummy wrappings—a neutral beige linen.

Kerith Koss was responsible for conserving the mask and creating its mount so that it could be properly displayed. The task of arranging and holding the fragments correctly required elaborate treatment. She told me about the work:

mummy mask silicone mount

Because the plaster is so soft and porous, Kerith wanted to avoid using adhesives that may be stronger than the actual plaster, and difficult to reverse in the future. She needed a material that would really conform to the back of the piece to lock the fragments in place. Silicone was the only thing that would take the form without having to apply pressure.

mummy mask sandbox

While three of the fragments locked together, the fourth one did not directly attach and was left floating. Because of this they could only be correctly oriented from the front, where the resulting face could be seen. But, the silicone mount had to be poured from the back. In order to do this, Kerith reconstructed the fragments in a sandbox.

mummy mask wax support

From the impression in the sand, Kerith created a foam and wax negative support that allowed her to flip the fragments over, while keeping their orientation correct.

The result is fantastic! Come and see the beautiful face made over 4000 years ago—it’s on display now.