“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
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.