National Geographic : 2010 Jun
• dun-colored cli face. " e caves have almost every ailment," she says, rattling o the dam- age caused by sand, water, soot from res, salt, insects, sunlight---and tourists. Fan oversees a sta of 500, but she recognized as far back as the 1980s that the academy could use the help of foreign conservationists. is may sound simple, but collaborating with foreigners is a sensitive issue at Chinese cultural heritage sites---and the plunder of the Mogao caves a century ago serves as a powerful cautionary tale. The sky outside Fan's window, cloudless and eggshell blue for days, suddenly darkens. A sandstorm has kicked up. Fan notices only long enough to remember the rst project she undertook with one of the academy's longest ser ving partners, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). To prevent the kind of sand invasion that had buried some of the caves---and damaged paintings---GCI erected angled fences on the dunes above the cliff, reduc- ing wind speeds by half and decreasing encroachment by 60 percent. Today the academy has dispatched bulldoz- ers and workers to plant wide swaths of desert grasses to perform the same job. The most painstaking efforts occur inside the caves. GCI has also set up monitors for humidity and temperature in the caves and is now measuring the ow of tourists as well. Its biggest project took place in Cave 85, a Tang dynasty grotto where GCI and academy con- servationists worked for eight years devising a special grout to reattach mural segments that had separated from the rock face. At a site this old, ethical ambiguities abound. In Cave 260, a sixth-century grotto that the University of London's Courtauld Institute of Art is using as a "study cave," Chinese students recently used micro-dusters to clean the surfaces of three small Buddha images. Almost invisible before, the Buddha's red robes suddenly spar- kled. "It's wonderful to see the painting," says Stephen Rickerby, a conservator who is coordi- nating the project. "But we're ambivalent. e dust contains salts that can damage the paint, but removing the dust exposes it to light that will cause it to fade." is is the dilemma Fan Jinshi faces: how to conserve the caves while exposing them to a wider audience. e number of tourists visit- ing Mogao reached more than half a million in 2006. The income has buoyed the Dunhuang Academy, but the mois- ture from all the breathing could damage the murals more than any other factor. Tourists are now limited to a rotating set of 40 caves, ten of which are open at any given time. Digital technology may provide one solution. Following up on a photo- digitization project com- pleted in 23 caves with the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, the academy has launched its own multiyear mara- thon to digitize all 492 decorated caves (so far, the sta has completed 20). e e ort mirrors an international push to digitize the scattered scrolls from Cave 17. Fan's dream is to bring together digital archives from East and West to re-create the full three-dimensional experience of the caves---not at the site itself, but in a sleek new visitor's center proposed to be built 15 miles away. e center has not yet moved beyond the planning stages. But Fan believes that reuniting all of Mogao's treasures in one place, even virtually, will guar- antee that their glories will never again be buried in the sand. " is will be a way," Fan says, "to preserve them forever." j Eyes bulging as he tramples a foreign demon, an eighth-century heavenly guard in armor reveals the ercer side of Buddhist cosmology. e grottoes' modern-day guardians at the Dunhuang Academy seem equally erce about protecting the caves. Says director Fan Jinshi, " e caves may be in China, but they belong to the world." CAVE 46, PAGE 131 Most other Silk Road sites were devoured by the desert or destroyed by successive empires. But the Mogao caves endured largely intact, their kaleidoscope of murals capturing the early encounters of East and West.