Tutankhamun's beard (c) Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Botched fix of Tutankhamun mask reversible

Patrick Steel, 28.01.2015
Museum director denies cover-up
A botched conservation of the mask of Tutankhamun is reversible, according to Christian Eckmann, a German conservator brought in by the Egyptian government to assess the damage.

Mahmoud El-Helwagy, the director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, told Museums Journal that museum staff found last August that the join between the beard and the mask of Tutankhamun was loose, so they decided to fix it.

“Because it was important they were in a hurry to fix it and unfortunately they used too much epoxy,” he said.

Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist, has alleged that the beard came unattached as the result of mishandling by a conservator at the museum, and that the incident was covered up.

El-Helwagy denied this but told Museums Journal that a government inquiry is looking into why the incident was not immediately reported.

At time of going to press El-Helwagy had not responded to Museums Journal’s requests to verify claims in The Guardian newspaper that the museum’s head of conservation, Elham Abdelrahman, had been demoted.

Speaking at a press conference at the weekend, Eckmann said the reconservation would be a “delicate operation that would have to be done carefully”.

Some remains of glue were visible on the beard, he added, but there were no changes to the colour of the mask, and the beard was not broken. He also reported a scratch, but said it was not clear whether this was done recently.

The Egyptian government is convening a committee of experts, conservators, archaeologists and scientists to develop a plan for the reconservation of the mask.

The mask was acquired by the museum in 1924, two years after Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery, and originally the beard was separate from the mask. It was not until 1941 that conservators decided to attach the beard.

According to Campbell Price, the curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Manchester Museum, the beard was originally stuck on with wax, so it was inevitable that it would deteriorate eventually.

"The undertone [of press reports about the incident] is that the Egyptians don’t know what they are doing and I don't think that is correct," he said. "They have a huge collection, and in the last ten years they have trained staff to an international standard.

“In any museum there is the potential for a cock-up, but this has got so much publicity as it is such an iconic item. If this alerts the international community that our Egyptian colleagues need more support, that is a good thing.”

The Egyptian government is holding a conference on Tutankhamun in May, at which strategies for the display of objects in the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is under construction, will be discussed.

Museums Journal understands that a number of objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo will be redisplayed in the new museum, but it is not yet known whether the mask will be one of them.

The conference was announced in November last year, before news of the botched conservation emerged, but it is likely that Tutankhamun’s beard will now be on the agenda.