The J. Paul Getty Trust 2016 Report
The Getty Conservation Institute
Timothy P. Whalen, Director
The Getty Conservation Institute works to advance conservation practice in the visual arts, broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites. It serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, model field projects, and the broad dissemination of the results of both its own work and the work of others in the field. In all its endeavors, the Conservation Institute focuses on the creation and dissemination of knowledge that will benefit the professionals and organizations responsible for the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage.
Throughout history, the long-term survival of cultural heritage has never been a guaranteed proposition. This is no less true today. One need not search long or hard for recent accounts of the destruction of cultural heritage in places around the world at the hands of religious extremists—or its loss through simple neglect. The accounts are dismaying, recording the tragic loss of heritage that has survived for centuries but is now gone forever. International efforts to prevent these transgressions against our collective inheritance are critical.
At the same time, the extensive media coverage that such events garner distract us from other threats to cultural heritage—threats that can, in fact, be greatly reduced through measures already available to us. Increasingly, practical and effective tools exist to combat these kinds of threats, which include natural disasters, environmental forces, urban development, and mass tourism.
Since its founding over thirty years ago, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) has dedicated itself to the creation and dissemination of knowledge that can assist the conservation profession in its work. Much of that work consists of striving in a multiplicity of ways to reduce the array of risks faced by cultural heritage internationally. In our projects, the risks can be as subtle as those posed by small variations in a museum environment to those as powerful and devastating as earthquakes. But whatever the case, our project work is characterized by careful study and testing to develop effective measures capable of reducing risk. Several current GCI projects are focused on reducing risk for a variety of cultural heritage.
Arches and the Middle East
For organizations responsible for the safeguarding of cultural heritage places, heritage inventories are the most important tool for making proactive, timely, and informed decisions. After all, the essential first step in protecting cultural heritage sites at risk is knowing what and where they are. Inventories are most effective and reach their fullest potential when employed through modern information technologies that offer widespread and quick access to key information, and that allow easy updating of records to reflect changing conditions. However, developing and maintaining effective digital inventory systems and sustaining related data is a costly, difficult undertaking, often beyond the reach of many heritage organizations.
In an environment of diminishing resources for heritage organizations, the GCI and World Monuments Fund created the Arches Heritage Inventory and Management System (Arches), a modern open source software platform designed for use by heritage institutions around the world. Arches, web-based and geospatially enabled, is purpose-built for managing inventories of all types of cultural heritage places, including buildings, structures, archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, urban districts, and cultural routes. Arches is freely available for downloading by large and small organizations, government entities, and nonprofit groups, and can be configured and customized without restrictions to meet their particular needs. Organizations may choose to provide unrestricted access to their Arches implementation and data or limit access.
A number of organizations worldwide have already implemented Arches, including the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). In response to the destruction of cultural heritage of Syria and areas of Islamic State activity within Iraq, in 2014 the US Department of State collaborated with ASOR to further the aims of documenting damage, promoting global awareness, sharing information with other organizations around the world, and planning emergency and post-war responses. Since May 2015, ASOR has used Arches as part of its Cultural Heritage Initiatives for Syria and Iraq.
In April 2016, the GCI and ASOR signed an agreement through which the GCI is providing additional direct support to ASOR for their Syrian and Iraqi initiatives. As Andrew Vaughn, ASOR’s executive director noted at the time, “The work of the GCI and ASOR demonstrates the role humanities play in the broader discussion of international relations and cultural security. Arches is the only software that serves the needs of the cultural heritage community when it comes to this kind of data gathering, organization, and analysis.”
The GCI–ASOR collaboration and subsequent enhancements to Arches will address significant challenges associated with cultural heritage monitoring in conflict zones. Key enhancements resulting from this collaboration will include the capacity to better utilize satellite imagery, rapid assessment capabilities for mobile data collection, and increased security for the submission of data. The improvements to Arches growing out of this collaboration will be valuable to others seeking to use the Arches system in emergency situations in the future.
The ability to quickly and securely assess the condition of cultural heritage sites that are endangered by conflict is a necessity, especially in the wake of the destruction of places of such significance as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. The GCI-ASOR collaboration provides a model for ways in which the international community can collaborate and coordinate to promote cultural security and protect the world’s cultural heritage.
In addition to ASOR, the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project at Oxford University is using Arches to record archaeological sites and landscapes that are under threat across the Middle East and North Africa from rapid population growth, urban expansion, agricultural development, warfare, and looting.
A number of other organizations around the world have adapted Arches to inventory their cultural resources, including the City of Los Angeles; a Manila-based nonprofit for its Philippine Heritage Map; Bhutan’s Division for Conservation of Heritage Sites; Queen Anne’s County, Maryland; and the Armed Forces Retirement Home (a historic residential campus for military veterans in Washington DC). A national-scale implementation in the Caribbean is under preparation.
Visitor Management at the Mogao Grottoes
Ironically, a significant threat to built cultural heritage grows out of its very popularity. In an age of global mobility characterized in part by an increasing desire of people to visit places of artistic and historic importance, the significant increase in heritage-oriented travel has fueled the phenomena of mass tourism, which, in turn, constitutes its own threat to the long-term preservation of the very cultural resources that have attracted visitors in the first place. Sustainable use of cultural heritage sites was, and remains, a challenge at significant and popular sites. Still, if managed properly, large numbers of visitors coming to historic places need not lead to a site’s deterioration.
At the World Heritage Site of the Mogao Grottoes, located near the town of Dunhuang in northwestern China, the Dunhuang Academy, the organization that stewards the site, has been collaborating with the GCI to address issues of mass tourism. Mogao—an ancient Buddhist site that was on the Silk Road—dates from the fourth to the fourteenth century, and contains 492 decorated cave temples excavated into 1.6 kilometers of cliff face. The site includes some 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and over 2,200 polychrome sculptures, together comprising the largest, most magnificent body of Buddhist art in China.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an explosive rise in tourism, predominantly domestic, emerged as one of the greatest problems facing Mogao. The tourism situation had reached crisis dimensions, threatening the art in the cave temples while simultaneously degrading the visitor experience through overcrowding in the confined spaces of the rock-cut caves and along narrow access walkways.
The Dunhuang Academy, one of the premier cultural heritage institutions in China, has been working with the GCI on a number of conservation efforts at the site for over twenty-five years. Part of that work was related to the Academy’s development of a comprehensive master plan for the site. The plan dealt with all aspects of visitor management and interpretation, but crucial among the strategies proposed was a carrying capacity study, which the GCI and the Academy undertook beginning in 2001. The driving forces for the study were preservation of the art and the need to better understand the causes of deterioration—and whether (and to what degree) visitation contributed to the decay and damage found in the wall paintings. The study sought to understand natural and human-induced deterioration as a prerequisite to determining safe levels for visitation that still provided a good visitor experience. Achieving this balance required a range of expertise and disciplines, including analytical and laboratory investigations, environmental research, analysis of site visitation, physical condition assessments, and development of visitor flow simulation models and visitor management systems.
The capacity study was integral to the larger visitor management plan that included a new visitor center, which opened in 2014 to offer site visitors with state-of-the-art presentation and interpretation. Such comprehensive planning has provided the Academy an opportunity to manage tourism growth in a sustainable manner and from a position of strength, rather than on the defensive against tourism pressure. Beyond Mogao, the capacity study offers a methodology and strategies applicable to other sites facing debilitating tourism growth. Better integration of management systems and monitoring of operations is an ongoing activity as Mogao visitor numbers reached one million in 2015. Thorough assessment and planning have laid solid groundwork for maximizing visitation while preserving the site and its art.
In tandem with development of the Mogao visitor study, two international workshops were held at Mogao to address concerns about tourism growth, especially at World Heritage sites. A 2009 workshop, “Advancing Sustainable Tourism at Natural and Cultural Heritage Sites,” was organized by the Australian and Chinese governments, the GCI, and the Dunhuang Academy, with support from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Tourism Working Group. The aim of the workshop (which brought together experts and representatives from twenty-one countries) was to discuss tourism at World Heritage sites in relation to potential changes in the operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention. In May 2013, the GCI, the Dunhuang Academy, and China ICOMOS co-organized an international colloquium, “Visitor Management and Carrying Capacity at World Heritage Sites in China,” at the Mogao Grottoes for a focused look at visitor management and carrying capacity. It was in the context of visitor management challenges at Mogao and with a view to increasing awareness in China of methods and approaches to managing visitors that the workshop was conceived. Case studies were presented of World Heritage sites in China, as well as international examples of visitor management.
The GCI’s overall conservation work at Mogao provided the impetus for the landmark exhibition, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, which opened at the Getty Center in May 2016 (see Getty Conservation Institute Highlights).
Museum Collection Environments
While objects in collections are not subject to the same environmental risks faced by built heritage, the issue of what constitutes appropriate collection environments, once thought a fairly settled matter, is now more open to question. In recent years, concerns have grown over practices for maintaining climatic conditions for objects—not only those imposed by institutions in international loan agreements but also, more generally, for collections on long-term display and in storage. These concerns reflect the imperative of environmental and financial sustainability, as well as the need to consider new understandings about collection requirements and advances in approaches to environmental control.
Since the mid-1970s, many museums have regarded a relatively narrow set of environmental parameters as providing the optimum conditions for preserving their collections. Although never actually prescribed as a standard by a professional body, this range nonetheless served as a de facto standard and became a frequent and—until fairly recently—generally unquestioned specification for institutional loan agreements. However, this somewhat narrow target range has proven difficult for collecting institutions to meet consistently for various reasons, including those relating to the vagaries of climate, the capabilities of climate control systems, and the availability of human and financial resources necessary for maintaining tight controls. Managing climatic conditions within this narrowly defined range is also highly dependent on continued access to reliable and relatively low-cost energy sources, a situation that can no longer be taken for granted. As a result, museums, libraries, and archives are now reconsidering their specifications for collection environments.
While some in conservation are working under new specifications that allow a broader climatic range, there remains uncertainty within the profession about the consequences to collections of adopting a more liberal approach to exhibition and storage environments. A major impediment to a wider acceptance of broader environmental parameters is the current incomplete understanding of the chemical and mechanical reactions of some hygroscopic materials to relative humidity and temperature levels outside a narrow range. More research is needed to determine whether permanent damage occurs in these materials, or to more susceptible objects associated with them, in the broader climatic ranges under consideration, and to understand the rate and degree of fluctuation they can withstand.
To address this need, the GCI established its Managing Collection Environments initiative (MCE), which is working on a number of compelling research questions and practical issues pertaining to the control and management of collection environments. The initiative seeks to inform environmental strategies for collections, taking into consideration the types of buildings and environmental systems that will sustain climatic conditions and acknowledging that any strategy should be an integral part of heritage preservation as a whole.
Recent MCE work has included both education and research. In February 2016, in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Lunder Conservation Center, the initiative offered two workshops on museum lighting titled “Masterclass on Museum Lighting: Beyond White LED.” Each was attended by an international group of conservators, scientists, and exhibition and lighting designers. The following month, an instructors’ meeting was held in Washington DC, hosted by the National Endowment for the Humanities, to launch plans for the MCE course Managing Collection Environments, scheduled to start in early 2017.
On the research side, analysis has begun of macro- and micro-mechanical properties of artistic materials. This work will improve understanding of how aging affects mechanical properties of different artist’s materials, and the probabilistic distribution of these properties across a typical collection of a certain age. Simultaneously, a pilot study was initiated to monitor the condition of selected wooden objects in controlled environmental conditions. Employing methodologies found in epidemiology, the pilot study uses several techniques for quantifying damage typologies that can be used in a larger series of prospective cross-sectional studies. Partners in this work include the Jerzy Haber Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences; Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; Technical University Eindhoven; and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Seismic Retrofitting in Peru
Among the threats to cultural heritage posed by forces of nature is the destructive power of earthquakes. Included among the built heritage particularly vulnerable to seismic events are structures composed of earth. A universal and ubiquitous form of construction, earthen building material appears in ancient archaeological sites as well as in modern buildings, in large complexes and historic centers, in individual structures, and in the form of decorated surfaces. Throughout the world, there are notable historic buildings constructed from earth situated in seismic zones.
During the 1990s, the GCI conducted a major research and laboratory testing program—the Getty Seismic Adobe Project (GSAP)—to investigate the performance of historic adobe structures during earthquakes and to develop effective retrofit methods that preserve the authenticity of these buildings. Results of this research were disseminated in a series of publications in both English and Spanish. In 2006, the GCI hosted a colloquium for an interdisciplinary group of sixty international specialists to assess the impact and efficacy of the GSAP seismic retrofitting recommendations and to discuss where and how GSAP guidelines had been implemented. The participants concluded that the methodology was effective but that its reliance on high-tech materials and professional expertise was a deterrent to its wide implementation in many seismically active places with large numbers of historic earthen buildings, such as throughout South America.
In response, the GCI in 2010 initiated a new seismic retrofitting research project with the objective of adapting the GSAP guidelines to better match the equipment, materials, and technical skills available in many countries with earthen buildings. The project includes the development of low-tech, cost-effective seismic retrofitting techniques and recommendations on easy-to-implement maintenance programs that improve the seismic performance of historic earthen buildings while preserving their historic fabric.
Peru was selected as the project’s location because of its extensive current and historical knowledge, the interest in Peru in retrofitting earthen buildings, and the country’s potential research partners and organizations that could implement new techniques through model projects. The GCI joined the Ministry of Culture of Peru and the School of Sciences and Engineering at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú—along with the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom—to launch the Seismic Retrofitting Project (SRP), which receives support from the GCI Council. The SRP aims to design appropriate retrofitting techniques; verify their efficacy through scientific testing and modeling; develop a methodology and guidance for implementing suitable retrofitting techniques for practitioners, including conservation professionals, building officials, site managers, and local builders; and work with regulatory authorities to gain acceptance of these methods, thereby ensuring they are embedded in practice.
The first three phases of the project included: (1) identifying prototype buildings that represent key earthen historic structures in South America; (2) undertaking detailed site inspections, structural assessments, and material assessments of each prototype, followed by laboratory testing of key building elements and developing numerical models of the prototypes to understand their response to seismic activity; and, (3) designing, testing, and modeling of potential retrofitting strategies for each prototype building. The project is currently in its fourth or implementation phase, in which tested designs are beginning to be applied to two of the four prototype buildings in Peru—Ica Cathedral and the Church of Kuño Tambo.
The SRP is generating new information on the characteristics of the materials used in earthen heritage buildings; the effectiveness of traditional retrofitting techniques; the seismic behavior of traditional construction systems; and the appropriate methodology to evaluate, diagnose, and implement seismic retrofitting projects in Peru and other countries in seismic zones. The initiative’s final phase will include production of guidelines to be used by conservation professionals, building officials, site managers, and local builders—whose traditional knowledge has been an essential source of information for this project—to retrofit earthen historic buildings, helping ensure that this heritage can survive the earthquake threat it perpetually confronts.
A Multifaceted Approach
The conservation measures and initiatives just described are the result of years of steadfast and meticulous work by conservation professionals, not only at the GCI but at the many organizations with which we partner internationally. Beyond our own projects are the numerous dedicated endeavors of other organizations around the world that maintain an equal measure of commitment to the preservation of cultural heritage. This multiplicity of efforts reflects a growing and more universal understanding of the ways in which cultural heritage enriches the human experience, recalling for us the aspirations of humanity through time, and providing us with a foundation for constructing a more creative and humane future. There is no better reminder of our shared history and common humanity than the achievements manifest in the full range of our cultural heritage—be it a prehistoric rock art site, a Buddhist cave temple, a Renaissance painting, a Hellenistic bronze sculpture, a Maya pyramid, an historic city core, or an iconic modernist home.
The success of the collective efforts on behalf of cultural heritage preservation does not only rest on the conservation field’s technical innovation, expertise, and persistence. Those things are essential, but they are not the sole component of a strategic approach for substantially reducing the risks facing cultural heritage. The other and equally critical part of confronting the threats to heritage is public awareness of—and support for—this conservation work, manifest through political will and the allocation of strongly needed resources. Through research, study, and testing in the field, the GCI has increased the number of ways that the reduction of risk from a range of threats can be practically achieved. Ultimately, if we are to preserve the cultural heritage we value, we must do more to expand support for tested and effective methods that can substantively diminish the threats to that heritage. It is a responsibility that falls on us all.