Volume 11, Number 1, Jan. 1989, pp.5-6

International Collaboration Formed to Conserve Chinese Cultural Treasures

from a J. Paul Getty Trust press release

The People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) have signed an unprecedented agreement to collaborate on the conservation of two of China's most important cultural sites: the ancient rock temples of the Mogao Grottoes, located on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northwestern China, and the Yungang Grottoes, 200 miles west of Beijing.

Supported by UNESCO, the educational, scientific, and cultural organization of the United Nations, the project represents the first major collaboration of its kind between the PRC, a foreign private foundation, and a UN agency. The sites are two of China's official National Treasures--a designation given to only a small number of the country's thousands of important cultural monuments.

The first phase of the conservation project, including scientific research, treatments, training of specialists, environmental monitoring and documentation, and on-site protection, is scheduled to begin this summer and will last 18 months.

The Mogao and Yungang Grottoes are the most magnificent storehouses of Buddhist art in the world, with their long history and rich contents. Both of them are National Treasures of China as well as the elite of mankind's cultural heritage," said Consul General Ma Yuzhen. "We are very happy to see that with the support of UNESCO, the Getty Conservation Institute of the J. Paul Getty Trust has joined our country in the conservation of the two sites. We are fully confident that with the joint efforts of the parties concerned, these two important cultural monuments will be preserved.

The GCI and the National Administrative Bureau for Museums and Archaeological Data (NABMAD) of the PRC's Ministry of Culture have been exploring the possibility of collaboration since 1986. In May 1988, at the invitation of NABMAD, GCI representatives made a preliminary visit to China, during which the Mogao and the Yungang Grottoes were identified as possible sites for joint conservation projects. Later that year, GCI Director Luis Monreal and his staff, together with NABMAD specialists, examined the two sites and discussed the specifics of a conservation program.

The Mogao Grottoes are near the town of Dunhuang, 1,100 miles west of Beijing. The site contains 492 rock temples or caves, the oldest dating from the fourth century AD, along one mile of cliff face. Within them are 484,200 square feet of wall paintings and more than 2,000 painted clay figures of Buddha, the largest measuring 108 feet in height. They are magnificent examples of the cultural, artistic, and spiritual achievements of China. The site is included on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The Yungang Grottoes near Datong, an industrial and coal mining city in northern China, contain 53 rock temples, dating from 460 to 524 AD, in a 1,000-yard long sandstone cliff face. 51,000 representations of Buddha, ranging from miniature bas-reliefs to statues 60 feet in height, are carved directly in the rock. Most carvings were restored in the Ming (1368-1644 AD) and earlier dynasties by mudplastering over the eroded carving, and were then decorated elaborately with polychrome and gilding. The Yungang Caves are in the process of being inscribed in the World Heritage List.

The two sites and their artwork have suffered deterioration over the centuries from natural agents such as rain, wind, and earthquakes, and more recently from pollution due to industrialization and urban development. Some of the conservation problems include stone erosion and weathering, peeling of paint layers, color change of paint, and damage from air pollution.

Field projects of this magnitude provide the international conservation community with valuable information on the application of new materials and technologies in conservation," remarked Luis Monreal. "We hope that the innovative scientific methods used to treat the specific problems in the Mogao and Yungang Grottoes will also provide solutions to the preservation needs of sites with similar problems, not only in China but throughout the world.

J. Paul Getty Trust
Press Release: 19 January 1989

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