Before any item in the Field Museum’s collection of more than 30 million objects and specimens makes it into an exhibition, it passes through one of three conservation labs, where staff members assess its condition, stabilize any damage and prepare it for display. Leading up to the museum’s upcoming exhibit “Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact”—which explores the interaction between Roman, Egyptian, Greek and Etruscan cultures—conservator Debbie Linn puts artifacts that are hundreds of years old under a microscope—literally.
“We are displaying less than 1 percent of our objects overall, so whenever we can pull something out of storage and use it, it’s really exciting,” says Linn. One such seldom-seen item in the upcoming exhibit is a glass pitcher that survived the volcanic eruption in Pompeii in 79 A.D. Though some of the object’s beautiful iridescent coating is chipping away, conservators prioritize stability over cosmetic restoration. “We don’t want these items to look brand-new,” says Linn. “We want them to look like they’ve had use, like they’ve had a life.”
Once a piece is cleared for display, it’s sent to the Field Museum’s mount shop, where a team constructs an apparatus to hold it while it’s exhibited. “The better job you do, the less your job is apparent,” says exhibit preparator Kate Ulschmid, pointing out that the team’s metalworking, sewing and painting are intended to blend into the background.
After being mounted, nearly every item in an exhibit needs a case or a stand. Luckily, the Field Museum houses its own woodshop, which fabricates a variety of custom fixtures. Located on the fourth floor of the building in a somewhat-narrow hallway, the department usually produces large items in sections so they can be squeezed into a small freight elevator and reassembled in an exhibit. In many ways, these cases are the most important part of any show, if only because they keep visitors’ hands off the priceless relics.