By Lorinda Wong

How does a conservation project that spans many years and involves numerous experts from various disciplines manage all the data a project of this scale inevitably generates? A collaboration between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dunhuang Academy provides insight into the complexity of the issues of information management, illustrating problems, as well as some solutions.

Since 1997 the two institutions have worked together to conserve the wall paintings in Cave 85 of the Mogao Grottoes, a Buddhist cave temple site situated along the ancient Silk Road in northwestern China (see Conservation, vol. 14, no. 2). The goal of the project is to identify and understand the causes and mechanisms of deterioration of the wall paintings and to design strategies and implement conservation actions that can preserve the paintings.

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The eight-year project has involved experts from many fields, including wall paintings conservators, environmental scientists, analytical chemists, geologists, and art historians. Each of these disciplines has generated vast amounts of information. As a result, methods of information management—the collection, organization, storage, retrieval, integration, manipulation, and presentation of multidisciplinary data—developed out of necessity and grew into an important component of the project. The challenge was to establish a data management system that would work across disciplines, facilitating access to project information by team members and thereby promoting the integration and use of multidisciplinary data, which was essential in guiding the project's work.

Information management has become an increasingly important topic in recent years—the subject of conferences and colloquia, including the 2005 American Institute for Conservation annual meeting, "The Documentation Dilemma: Managing Conservation Data in the 21st Century"—mainly because of the growing role of information management, the introduction and wide acceptance of digital photography, and the continued dependence on computers in conservation. Information management has become a discipline in itself within the conservation field. No longer just about file naming and organization, it also includes the thoughtful storing of data that not only involves file retrieval but also offers the ability to query data and to promote the use and integration of this information. Different types of databases are being developed for the field. Marketed as easy to use, databases facilitate data entry, aid in the organization and storage of digital files and images, and even generate ready-formatted reports at the press of a button.

However, one cannot overlook the human role in this process. Nor can we ignore the issues of long-term preservation of digital technologies as we continue to generate increasingly larger amounts of digital data. We need to ensure not only that our software and files are continually updated but also that the systems with which we store information are equally secure. At present, there are no easy solutions.

Types of Data

The Cave 85 project data are vast and varied. Initial information gathering resulted in:

  • a project bibliography in hard copy and electronic form;
  • collection of information (such as geological and hydrological data) that might contribute to an understanding of the deterioration found throughout the site;
  • art-historical information on the iconography of the late Tang dynasty wall paintings and sculptures;
  • historical photographs and archival material that reconstruct the physical history of Cave 85 and help in the understanding of the site's history and deterioration; and
  • conservation history to understand previous interventions in Cave 85, as well as general conservation practices at the Mogao Grottoes.
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Condition recording was undertaken to understand the causes and mechanisms of deterioration of the wall paintings. Recording included a comprehensive photographic survey, an illustrated glossary of condition terms, graphic documentation to map types and distribution of deterioration in the cave, and written reports. The analytical investigation studied the original materials and techniques of the wall paintings, as well as the causes and mechanisms of salt-driven deterioration—in particular, the detachment of the painted plaster, the most serious wall paintings problem in Cave 85. Both noninvasive examination and invasive sampling generated scientific reports and image files and significant amounts of raw data from an array of analytical instrumentation. An environmental investigation monitored the interior microclimate and the exterior climate for the entire length of the project. With individual probes collecting measurements every fifteen minutes, the amount of environmental data gathered is immense.

As part of testing and development of conservation interventions, laboratory and in situ testing were thoroughly documented. These efforts included the comprehensive research and testing of grout formulations for use in treating the detached painted plaster in Cave 85—over eighty different grout formulations were subjected to a rigorous series of tests. The actual treatment was also fully documented. With individual conservation interventions almost complete, final postconservation documentation will now be undertaken.

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Added to all this information is the ever-growing collection of digital images. Straddling the divide between analog and digital technology, the project for the first five years relied on traditional photography, while work since 2003 has been almost exclusively digital. As a result, the amount of electronic data jumped from five gigabytes in 2003 to over twenty-five gigabytes in 2005. This leap is due almost entirely to the storage of digital images, but it also includes thousands of files in various formats: text, data, photography, video, graphic presentation, and drawings.

Information—in English and Chinese—is generated by staff at both the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy, as well as by outside consultants. This accumulation is very much a live body of data. It is constantly evolving as information is updated and altered. The structure and organization of the information are modified as the project develops.

Problems and Solutions

With so much information being generated, it became increasingly difficult to retrieve files in a timely manner. In a multiyear project of this nature, with multiple users involved, from different fields, on multiple continents—and with data being produced in two languages—it is difficult to track who did what when and where it can be found. The absence of a standardized file naming practice exacerbated the problems, as did the lack of centralized storage of files and the lack of an agreed-upon file organizational structure. Files were often kept on personal computers. Multiple versions of a single file were generated, without indication of when it was modified or by whom. These circumstances led to poor communication among project team members and caused much time to be wasted in locating files and determining their most current versions.

The decision to focus attention on information management came late, midway through the project. What was to be done with all of this data?

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The goal in managing the Cave 85 information was not to develop new ways of dealing with data. Rather, it was to manage the data in a simple, organized, efficient, and effective manner that would transcend inevitable developments in software and technology. We simply aimed to collect, organize, and store information in a way that would promote its use during the project. In other words, we focused on the working data rather than on the future archiving of project information, an area that will need to be addressed following the project's completion.

A protocol for receiving, storing, and sharing information became the answer. The key to its implementation is best described as a low-tech solution—the appointment of an information manager, through whom all information now flows.

Ideally the information manager is a person with a solid understanding of the project, of the different types of information generated, and of the structure of the project. In the Cave 85 project, the information manager works closely with project team members on:

  • data collection: receiving and monitoring all data from project team members;
  • file naming: renaming files following an agreed-upon convention (including a brief description of the content, metadata on the author, creation date, and file type);
  • storage: storing each file in its appropriate place on a shared folder—and not on personal computers (the shared folder is a secure, networked location that allows access to all project members);
  • data sharing: communicating receipt and availability of project information to appropriate team members, including the creation of a parallel database and the identification of an information manager in China to allow for the exchange of critical documents between project partners;
  • retrieval: locating files and helping direct team members to relevant information; and
  • maintenance: maintaining and reorganizing the shared folder and keeping information current.

Information management is not the job of the information manager alone but is also the responsibility of every team member. The system requires continuous attention and maintenance and relies heavily on human accuracy and commitment. It only works if the entire team practices great discipline.

Integration, Manipulation, and Presentation

Accessible data alone does not move a project forward. Interpretation demands a complete view of the data. To understand the whole story, the data must be integrated, with trends discovered by one discipline informing the picture formed by other disciplines. The thoughtful integration of multidisciplinary data and subsequent interpretation by the project team help guide decision making.

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To provide meaning and context, data may also need to be manipulated and visually presented. It is hard to discern trends from raw data produced by analytical and environmental investigations, let alone use it for deriving conclusions. There is a need to visually display these types of data in a significant, meaningful, and understandable manner to aid in its interpretation. For instance, scientific data generated from the comprehensive sampling investigation was placed in individual sample reports created by both the conservation and the analytical teams. Each report is a document containing all information related to a single sample. This report includes description of the sample, sample location, sampling rationale, and results of analytical investigation. Sample reports were placed in the shared folder so that the scientific and conservation teams could easily share information.

As an example of the integration and visual presentation of data, the diagnostic initiative included investigation into salts as the main cause of deterioration in Cave 85. As part of this inquiry, a comprehensive salt survey was undertaken, in which tiny microcores of plaster were carefully carved out of the upper ten millimeters of plaster at selected locations throughout the cave—areas where there were already losses of the paint layer. Forty-seven microcores were taken, each at four or five incremental depths into the painting strata, resulting in nearly two hundred samples. The microcores were then analyzed to identify the presence of soluble ions of salts , as well as to assess their distribution. The results were not easily recognized. Instead, the data was visually presented topographically to correlate analytical with conservation data. The locations of the microcores were superimposed over the condition recordings, which were in the form of cad drawings showing areas of loss of the painted plaster. Each microcore was correlated with a data table showing the main soluble ions divided by incremental depth. This type of plotting, which was done for all areas, clearly revealed the enrichment of salts toward the west end of the cave, in comparison to the east end. The visual display established a direct correlation between the salt content of the plaster and the condition of the wall paintings.

What Was Learned

In the context of the Cave 85 project—most known for its project methodology, scientific research, environmental control measures, and development and application of innovative conservation treatment—information management has been demonstrated to be an integral and essential component of the conservation process.

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An important lesson learned from the project is that information management needs to be integrated into the conservation process from start to finish, with commitment from the entire project team. An information management plan from the beginning of the project would have supported the allocation of appropriate resources and time throughout the course of the work. As a result of the late start and an initial hesitation in dedicating the necessary resources to managing information, there was little time for cleaning up existing data or for exercising tighter control in the collection of incoming information. The eventual archiving of project data—which will involve distinguishing essential from nonessential project information for the future—therefore remains a big task. The tardy start also prevented pursuit of information management tools that, in hindsight, would have been advantageous, such as using a searchable database for entering the results of the analytical investigation.

However, it is never too late to begin to manage project information. The management of information during the last half of the Cave 85 project happened during a crucial period of multidisciplinary research and investigation, testing and development, and implementation of conservation work. The relatively simple solutions of naming an information manager and of instituting a data protocol proved effective for facilitating data exchange and for promoting the use of information among professionals from different fields—essential components for moving the project forward.

Lorinda Wong is an associate project specialist with the GCI and the information manager for the project in Cave 85.