Northern Wei bodhisattva, Dunhuang Cave 257. From Cavetemples.com.
Come September 2014, the Chinese government will allow tour groups to visit only selected caves at the Mogao Grottoes near Dunhuang in northwest China, a rich repository of Buddhist murals and sculpture spanning the 5th to 14th century. Aside from special permits issued to registered researchers and conservationists, the days when tourists could visit 20 or so caves will be gone. With more caves closing, the Dunhuang Academy is now focusing on reducing the time people spend in those that remain open to the public. The Visitor Center for Dunhuang, 15 kilometers from the original Mogao site and near Dunhuang Airport, is an educational facility that (in theory) will provide all the material visitors need to be educated and inspired in advance. The government and the Dunhuang Academy thus hope to mitigate the ill effects of tourism on the actual caves.
This is a difficult solution to a difficult problem: how can heritage sites, particularly those as fragile as the Dunhuang caves, be protected whilst compromising as few of the educational and spiritual opportunities for visitors as possible?
The Visitor Center’s 360-degree domed auditorium will show vivid digital images of the best-preserved wall paintings and
sculptures. The Dunhuang Academy hopes that better facilities and services than at the current Mogao area (such as a café, and specialists and trained personnel), as well as a shuttle bus to the original site, will allow the projected 67–163 million visitors over the next 5–15 years to experience the history and majesty of the grottoes while spending less time at the caves themselves.
The Dunhuang Grottoes were intended as religious sites, and their makers never imagined they might become a living museum. In a paper presented at the Buddhist Art Forum held at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, Wang Xudong, Deputy Director of the Dunhuang Academy, stressed that “Narrow and dark caves and fragile wall paintings and polychromed statues are not conducive to large-scale and long-term visitation” (Wang, 2013: 168). Even before the Visitor Center was conceived five years ago, the Dunhuang Academy based its methodology of preservation on the principle of “preventive conservation”. This is a pragmatic school of conservation that takes into account a factor called “visitor carrying capacity”, in that “increased visitor numbers disturb the relatively constant cave microclimate environment leading to elevating levels of carbon dioxide in the caves; sharp changes in air temperature and relative humidity in the caves, and so on” (Wang, 2013: 167). Over the years, this has prompted measures like a meteorological monitoring system; a set of criteria to determine which caves can endure visitation, and now the initiative of visitor management that has culminated in the Visitor Center.
Dr. Irene Lok, a Research Fellow at The University of Hong Kong, well knows the benefits – and pitfalls – of the government’s strategy. Understanding that the government’s current approach will restrict her access as a researcher, she still remains in favor of the current policy of conservation for Dunhuang. “The average tourist will likely be satisfied by the amenities of the new center,” she told us, “and researchers will still get special permits for entering the caves that need documentation. We have already lost so much in China, it might actually be good that conservation is leaning on the stricter side.”
One could, however, argue that as everything is impermanent, decay is inevitable. The resplendence of an original artwork may not shine through in a replica—moreover, it must be remembered that these are religious works intended to guide beings on the path to enlightenment. By restricting access, could one be preventing someone from receiving just that spark that might ignite their spiritual path?
Wang Xudong, “Dunhuang Grotto Buddhist Art and its Preventive Conservation”, in Park, David; Wangmo, Kuenga; and Cather, Sharon, (eds.). Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation. London: Archetype Publications, 2013, 153–169.