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Rare Look into Famous Chinese Caves

Chinese and Northwestern technologists preserve ancient Mogao Cave relics

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December 20, 2010
Fan Jin Shi, director Dunhuang Academy (center) and Harlan Wallach (right) meet in a Mogao cave to review the new design of camera scaffolding.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The treasures of China’s world-renowned Mogao Grottoes, or Dunhuang Caves―arguably home to the most important collection of ancient cave murals and other Buddhist art―soon will become more widely accessible and better preserved with help from Northwestern University.

For the first time during the multi-year e-heritage preservation project with Northwestern, a team of digital technology specialists from China’s Dunhuang Academy visited the University for a ten-day exchange of advanced digital imaging techniques with their counterparts at Northwestern University Information Technology (NUIT)―a partnership that began in 1999.

The Dunhuang Academy has embarked on a large-scale national initiative in China to build a new museum and visitor center near the site to give the public an interactive cave experience with the proper balance between tourism and conservation.

Applying new skills and techniques they learned at Northwestern, the Mogao Grottoes Photography and Data Management team are creating and building a three dimensional and digital imagery archive of over 300 unique cave murals to display within the center.

“This trip provided the rare opportunity for us to share technology to enhance existing photography and enable the acquisition and conservation of these artifacts through digital media,” said Robert Taylor, director, NUIT Academic & Research Technologies. “We are honored to be a part of this collaborative relationship in support of China’s historic endeavor.”

For more than a decade, NUIT Northwestern University Advanced Media Production Studio (NUAMPS) and the Dunhuang Academy have worked together on projects designed to preserve China’s cultural heritage through the application of advanced computing technologies.

“There is no site in the world comparable to the Mogao Grottoes,” said Harlan Wallach, media architect, NUIT Academic & Research Technologies. “We are digitally preserving forever the relics of the grottoes from natural deterioration, such as atmospheric environmental damage and cave-ins, which will inevitably occur over time.”

Preserving History through Digitization

Buddhist worshippers between the 5th and 14th centuries carved as many as 1,000 cave shrines out of Dunhuang’s sandstone cliff facades at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Today 492 of these elaborately painted temples remain, representing nearly a millennium of unparalleled Buddhist art.

Using high definition cameras and custom-designed and custom-built camera support, the Dunhuang Academy team photographs small sections of the caves’ painted murals and then, adopting advanced computing techniques they learned at Northwestern, “stitches” them together, much like a quilt, to create a single, never-before-seen, comprehensive image.

To protect the delicate murals from damage due to human contact, only a select few of the Dunhuang caves are open for public viewing at any given time, and many of the murals within them are hidden behind support pillars, making it impossible to get an overall view of the artwork.

These newly created digital images will allow visitors to see the murals as they could not experience them even inside the caves.

To view a rich collection of Dunhuang Cave artifacts imaged by Northwestern for the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, visit ArtStor, a nonprofit digital library for education and scholarship.

Topics: University