“Let me show you something beautiful,” says Judy Jungels (MFA ’94) as she enters a small room with walls of white-painted brick. There’s a counter with a large gray box on it. Under the counter on shelves lie several lances made of rough wood, with carved ivory tips. A few feet away sits a dog sledge that Robert Peary, the American explorer, brought back from Greenland in the late 19th century. The sledge is made of several pieces of petrified-looking wood lashed together with blackened hide. Caribou antlers serving as crosspieces look pale against the dark frame.
Standing before the box, Jungels opens her arms wide and lifts the lid. The tissue paper inside flutters. She slips her finger between tiny magnets holding the paper closed and gently unfolds it. Lying in the box, like a gift from Henri Bendel, is a traditional Alaskan gutskin parka. The seal intestine it’s made of is silvery-gray. The cuffs are edged in fur. Finely embroidered trim adds a dash of red around the neck.
“It’s completely waterproof,” she says quietly, gazing at the coat. “Native Alaskans wore these to hunt and fish and for ceremonial purposes.” She folds the tissue paper back over the coat as though putting it to bed, and replaces the lid.
As a conservator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, Jungels has held the fate of hundreds of objects in her hands. Which is good, because if you happen to have a collection of human artifacts dating back tens of thousands of years and drawn from all over the globe, she’s exactly the person to whom you should entrust it; in addition to being highly skilled, she is at once alert, focused and preternaturally calm. Working under the eaves of a six-story, red brick Victorian building in the heart of Cambridge, Mass., Jungels is part of a team devoted to restoring, preserving and protecting one of the top assemblages of cultural materials in the world. The Peabody boasts 1.2 million objects, of which 3,000 are on display, with hundreds more regularly pulled out of storage each year and prepared for in-house exhibits, students, researchers and loans to other institutions.
Leaving the sledge and the gutskin coat, Jungels crosses the hall to the 5,000-square-foot conservation lab. Skylights bathe the room in soft white light. Fume hoods swoop down from the ceiling. High counters travel the length of both walls, with long, high tables running down the center. Jars of solvents and adhesives are crowded on shelves; one is labeled “Rabbit Skin Glue.” A huddle of sienna-colored ceramic and stone vessels, some with faces, others decorated with animals, await treatment.
At the far end of the lab, a woman wearing a white coat and gloves peers through a microscope at a lacy gold-and-green Javanese shadow puppet crafted from rawhide. Next to her is a jar holding tweezers, small paintbrushes and pointy tools like the kind jewelers and dentists use. A second white-coated woman sits nearby in front of a computer screen looking at a color image of the 4-inch-long, thumb-shaped piece of whalebone resting on the work surface beside her. The object sports a fresh-water pearl on one end and a delicate handwritten number on the other.
“We’re very busy preparing for next spring’s exhibition, which focuses on Frederic Ward Putnam and the World’s Columbian Exposition,” Jungels explains. The famous naturalist and anthropologist was a director of the museum. The exhibition will explore his legacy, including his role overseeing anthropology at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (also called the World’s Columbian Exhibition) and his pioneering archeological work in Ohio. Between 500 and 1,000 objects will be displayed, making the show the biggest Jungels has worked on in her 10-year tenure at the museum. “I’m the point person for conservation, so I’ve been involved with planning, meetings, helping curators and people in the Exhibits department narrow down the choice of objects. We’ve never had to process so many materials so quickly. May 2017 might seem far away, but with this many objects to prepare, it’s really not.” She pauses and watches her colleagues work. “It’s a little overwhelming,” she adds, without looking overwhelmed at all.