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In Good Hands

A sculptor practices the art and science of conservation

Judy Jungels

Story by Sarah C. Baldwin | Photographs by Karen Philippi

“There are so many different types of materials. You can’t really know everything about each one. So every time you take on a new project you have to learn new things. You get to try to understand objects in terms of what they’re made out of.”
Judy Jungels, MFA ’94

“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. 

FROM CREATION TO CONSERVATION

Jungels in the conservation lab, examining an artifact under a microscope.

Jungels in the conservation lab, examining an artifact under a microscope.

Before Jungels learned to conserve the works of others, she was creating her own. “I always wanted to be a sculptor,” she says. And that is what she became. After graduating from Alfred University with a BFA in glass and ceramics, she went on to earn an MFA in sculpture from UB, where she studied with renowned sculptor Tony Paterson and the late painter Walter Prochownik. (In between, her studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts came to an end when her glass studio collapsed during an earthquake.)

When Jungels was 5, her father moved the family to Buffalo to pursue a PhD in English at UB, where her mother also earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. (Both parents are now retired SUNY professors.) Jungels stayed in the city after completing her studies, doing commission work in addition to her own art, but it wasn’t enough to live on. “What I wanted was to use the skills I’d developed in fine art and also make a living I felt comfortable with,” she says.

Circling ever closer to her ultimate vocation, she worked at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (now The Buffalo History Museum) as an exhibit preparator, did book preservation for the UB Libraries, and wrote proposals to the city on behalf of the UB Casting Institute—one of the largest institutional foundries in the country—for the conservation of outdoor sculpture, including three monumental friezes by Charles Cary Rumsey that are currently installed outside Alumni Arena. “I had done a lot of bronze casting at UB and wanted to learn about conservation,” she says. “There were conservators who worked in the parks around Buffalo, and while I was working for the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society I used to go talk to them. They were really friendly and happy to share the process and techniques they were using.”

Jungels decided to apply to the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State, where she received intensive training in the knowledge and techniques required to care for artistic, historical and cultural items, entailing the study of everything from art and craft to history and science. “In the science lab, we spent a lot of time looking at pigments to identify them,” she recalls. “We did microchemical tests. We used analytical equipment like X-ray fluorescence analysis to look at a material’s elemental composition. I found that I liked chemistry, and I liked understanding the technology behind objects.”

This curiosity has served her well at the Peabody, with its extremely diverse collection. “There are so many different types of materials,” she says. “You can’t really know everything about each one. So every time you take on a new project you have to learn new things. You get to try to understand objects in terms of what they’re made out of.” Among her many projects on behalf of the Peabody, she has done a condition assessment of a stucco wall in Honduras and treated excavated metals in Turkey and Peru.

Jungels also continues to make art when she can—enameling on metal, some sculpture and glasswork—and draws inspiration from her life as a conservator. “I’m always very impressed by what people were able to do long ago.”

TRAVELING TLC

It’s impossible not to sense a connection between Jungels and the objects she so painstakingly works on. It isn’t just about using the appropriate adhesive to repair a tear, the right material to fill a mosaic. She’s also concerned with how an item is displayed—the relative humidity and temperature in the case, for example, or its exposure to light. (In fact she is responsible for monitoring all the storage and display environments in the very old building, downloading data loggers into a database and troubleshooting when necessary, which is often.)

She even goes so far as to accompany loaned objects to their destinations, and to help with or advise on their installation. She has couriered Native American objects to Amsterdam, Royal Hawaiian feather capes and headdresses to Los Angeles, and a very rare tapa figurine to Canberra, Australia. (Tapa refers to barkcloth made on the islands of the Pacific by pounding or felting the inner bark of a tree and painting or stamping a design on it.) “Courier trips are fun, but they’re also important for the object. We obviously trust our colleagues, but it’s our job to protect the object as much as we can,” says Jungels.

Sometimes this requires give and take—including with colleagues in her own museum. “We all have different perspectives. [Conservators] want the object to be in the lowest lighting possible ... but someone coming from an exhibit-designer point of view may want the object to be lit more brightly, or a curator might want to highlight a particular object. That’s always something you have to negotiate along the way.”

While all this work strives to be imperceptible to the viewer and happens mostly behind the scenes, Jungels and her colleagues recently brought their artistry out of the lab and into the public eye. In 2003, visiting Native Alaskan researchers happened upon an object in storage and recognized it as the world’s last Alutiiq warrior kayak. Ten years and several grants later, Peabody conservators began work on the 150-year-old, 14-and- a-half-foot-long watercraft, setting up shop downstairs in the gallery so visitors to the museum could ask questions and watch them work.

One of the best parts of the project, according to Jungels, was collaborating with an Alutiiq skin sewer, a traditional kayak maker and experts at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska—sometimes via Skype. It was a happy collision of the traditional—the Alutiiq people have been around for more than 7,500 years—and the modern. At the Peabody, for example, they used peptide mass fingerprinting, which analyzes collagen, to identify what kind of hide was covering the driftwood frame. (It was sealskin. Of earless seal, to be exact.)

In April of this year, Jungels got to bring the kayak back to where it was collected, in 1869, by Capt. Edward Fast; it is now on a 10-year loan to the Alutiiq Museum. But unlike with the featherwork and tapa figurine, Jungels was reunited with the kayak only at the end of the journey. It traveled the 5,000 miles by truck and ship. She took a plane.

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Sarah C. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I.