The current holdings of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung encompass some 90,000 objects. They are cared for by five conservation studios, each specialised in a different area: stone, ceramics, metal, wood and other organic materials, and papyrus. The conservators are responsible for all objects while they are in storage, during exhibitions, and when on loan.
Stone objects constitute the largest group of artefacts within the Egyptian collection: from statues, stelae, reliefs and architectural elements to cult objects and everyday utensils in untreated or painted stone. Materials include a wide variety of sedimentary rock (limestone, sandstone and alabaster) to hard rock (granite, diorite, gneiss, quartzite and greywacke). Depending on the size of the objects, their weight can vary from just a few grams to several tons. Based on their condition and level of damage, each object first undergoes an in-depth preliminary analysis and is then documented, treated and conserved in line with the most up-to-date scientific research.
This studio is responsible for objects made from siliceous materials, primarily painted and unpainted earthenware, but also silicate ceramics (faience), glass, glazes and other artefacts made of clay or adobe. The collections cared for by the studio consist of vessels and other objects for everyday use, figures such as ushabtis, depictions of gods and animals, bricks, seal impressions and jewellery. Preventive conservation is the main priority when treating any part of the comprehensive holdings, for example, securing unstable surfaces, cleaning, sorting and reassembling fragments. The conservation of individual pieces or groups of objects begins with an analysis of their materials and incorporates stabilisation and consolidation, cleaning, removing previous restoration work, as well as reconstructing and supplementing or replacing unsound material. The supervision of interns and students is only possible in conjunction with other studios at the museum.
Metallic objects belonging to the museum include statuettes, small sculptures, cult objects, jewellery, implements and tools that were made between 3000 BC and 300 AD. They were acquired by the museum through excavations, donations and purchases. Materials range from copper alloys, precious metals, iron and various non-ferrous metals to combinations of materials, at times incorporating leather and wood. On account of their age and the environmental conditions in which they were found, many objects show signs of corrosion, salinisation and embrittlement and are in an unstable state, while other objects have only survived in fragments. Measures undertaken to stabilise these objects in the past were not always appropriate and at times triggered further chemical and electrochemical processes that have caused additional damage. A combination of complex conservation and restoration techniques is required to treat these metal objects due to their varied compositions and the different types of damage they have incurred.
Wooden objects make up the second largest materials group within the Egyptian collection, the best-known examples of which include unpainted coffins, sculptures and mummy portraits. Another significant group is the painted cartonnage made of multiple layers of fabric and papyri that decorated the mummies. This technique was used for both human and animal mummies. Further objects in the collection are made of ivory, bone, mother of pearl, leather and wax as well as vegetable foodstuffs and textiles. Surviving fragments of floor and wall ornamentation were made from a mixture of painted gypsum and silt from the Nile. Conserving this wide range of organic materials is the responsibility of the wood studio. Textiles are cared for in collaboration with the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst. The studio also offers internships and supervises dissertations.
With over 35,000 manuscripts, the papyrus collection is one of the largest of its kind worldwide. The founder of papyrus conservation Dr. h. c. Hugo Ibscher worked here for over forty years and his son Dr. Rolf Ibscher also joined the department. As well as papyrus, the collection incorporates other writing materials such as parchment, leather, paper, wooden and wax tablets as well as potsherds and limestone flakes (ostraca). The state of preservation of the papyri varies depending on the site where it was discovered, for example, in an ancient dumping ground or in a tomb. When conserving such items, corrosive inks and pigments as well as historic treatments must be taken into account. Restoration work ranges from extensive measures to stabilise and preserve the materials to the reconstruction of texts that have only survived in fragments. A further specialism is uncovering new texts by carefully taking apart the cartonnage made of papyrus used to decorate mummies. These were actually made of papyrus documents that were recycled to produce the mummy masks.