Inside the Arizona State Museum Conservation Laboratory

Jan. 13, 2016

From Columbian mammoth remains to prehistoric sloth dung to contemporary American Indian pottery, the Arizona State Museum is home to thousands of artifacts that must be carefully stored and preserved.

Central to that effort is the museum's Conservation Laboratory, led by conservator Nancy Odegaard, who also is a professor in the University of Arizona's School of Anthropology, Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Drachman Institute in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture.

Under Odegaard's direction, a team of students, employees, visiting scholars and community volunteers undertakes the often-meticulous task of evaluating and stabilizing damaged museum holdings.

"The items that come here typically have a problem — they have a question (that needs to be answered)," Odegaard says.

"We use a number of techniques to examine, to analyze, to propose a treatment to stabilize (the artifacts).… Then we work very much within an area called preventive care, where we're trying to control the environment of the building to make sure it’s a good envelope to preserve things."

The lab works at the nexus of art and science, Odegaard says, with projects ranging from complex chemical analysis in a wet chemistry lab to delicate hand stitching that requires superior hand-eye coordination.

Some of the preservation protocols developed in the lab — such as those for analyzing and treating Southwestern pottery or for detecting pesticide residues — have been adopted by conservators nationwide and across the globe.

Thousands of objects come through the lab each year, including pieces on loan to and from the museum and items being returned to tribal nations. Odegaard and her team are currently focusing much of their attention on high-need items in the museum's basketry collection, which includes more than 35,000 specimens.