Application of the China Principles at the Mogao Grottoes

The application phase of the China Principles project was designed to put the Principles into practice at cultural heritage sites in China. The World Heritage site of the Mogao Grottoes, where the GCI had worked since 1989 and whose site manager, Fan Jinshi, had been involved in the development of the China Principles, was a testing ground for the viability and utility of the emerging Principles, beginning in 1997 (See also application of Principles at Chengde.). The application phase has involved collaboration with the site manager and staff to develop a general master plan and to demonstrate the use and application of the master plan by collaboratively implementing one or more of its action plans.

Mogao Grottoes
The Mogao Grottoes, a World Heritage Site on the Silk Road, is located near the ancient town of Dunhuang in northwestern China. Dating from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, the ancient Buddhist site contains 492 decorated caves temples excavated into 1.6 kilometers of cliff face. The site includes some 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and over 2,400 polychromed sculptures comprising the largest and most magnificent body of Buddhist art in China.

Under a collaborative agreement with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), the GCI began working with the Dunhuang Academy (DA), the authority responsible for the site, in 1989 on conservation at the Mogao Grottoes. The first years of collaboration addressed site-wide problems, such as control of sand migration of the dunes and environmental monitoring. Beginning in 1997, the collaboration focused on Wall Paintings Conservation at Mogao.

Site and Regional Master Planning
In 1999 the partners began to apply the planning process being espoused for the emerging China Principles to the development of a comprehensive master plan for conservation and management of the Mogao Grottoes. The plan was subsequently further developed by the Architectural Design Institute, a nationally certified planning institution, which undertook extensive graphic mapping of the assessment results and physical planning on elevations of the cliff face and satellite maps, and ensured that the plan complied with the newly issued regulations for master planning of national level heritage sites. The master plan has been officially approved at the provincial and national level.

Two components of the master plan were selected for further development and implementation: an action plan for visitor management and a visitor carrying capacity study for the site (see below). Given the reality of growing visitor numbers and pressures to encourage tourism, there was an urgent need to develop a comprehensive strategy for managing visitors and interpreting the site that would include considerations for a visitor center, methods of enhancing the visitor experience, and a reservation system to reduce crowding. The Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage (formerly Australian Heritage Commission) participated in the development of the master plan, the visitor management plan, and a visitor survey methodology.

The Mogao Master Plan has been in operation for ten years, and like the China Principles, which were updated after ten years of application, the Master Plan is in need of assessment and updating. This will began in 2017 as part of a renewed Memorandum of Understanding between the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy signed in September 2016.

The GCI will also begin assisting the Dunhuang Academy in regional master planning and training as the Academy takes on responsibility for three additional grotto sites on the Silk Road in Gansu Province (Majishan, Binglingsi and the Northern Grottoes) all part of China's World Heritage Silk Roads listing: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor.

Visitor Capacity Study
Central to the visitor management plan was establishing the visitor capacity of the grottoes with the goal of protecting the wall paintings and sculpture from any alteration or damage as a result of visitation and ensuring visitor safety and comfort. This involved a complex and multifaceted visitor study undertaken by the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy.

The study focused on the site's Grotto Zone, where the 492 painted caves are located. A major research and assessment component was developed to address the main issues impacting the grottoes and the visitors. The specific issue identified for the wall paintings was ongoing deterioration, in which the mechanisms leading to decay can be activated under conditions of elevated humidity. The research design required, foremost, investigation of the causes and mechanisms of deterioration of the wall paintings and the impact of visitation on cave microenvironments to establish whether there is a link between visitation to the caves and deterioration. The main visitor issues were overcrowding in the peak summer and holiday seasons and bad air quality in many of the caves (the result of high carbon dioxide [CO2] levels, heat, and body odors).

The research strategy to address these issues integrated analytical investigations in the laboratory; environmental monitoring and research; and assessment of condition and visitation potential for 112 priority caves. The research resulted in a conceptually integrated body of information about the presence, types, and distribution of active deterioration in the caves; the conditions activating this deterioration; the role of natural air exchange with the outside in accelerating or mitigating deterioration through its influence on relative humidity and on CO2buildup; the impact to the wall paintings from visitation, and to visitors from high CO2 and crowding; the potential of individual caves to be visited, based on level of risk, significance, size, safety and access limitations; and the principal management conditions that affect the daily visitor capacity.

From the research, visitation limiting conditions were defined and applied to the caves, providing the basis for setting provisional visitor capacities for individual caves. The investigations are now completed and the findings are being used to inform management decisions and policies regarding visitation to the caves. The publication of this work in 2015, allows the Mogao study to be viewed in the context of visitor capacity paradigms and issues of visitor management in China (see Strategies for Sustainable Tourism at the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, China).

Visitor Management Workshops
In tandem with development of the visitor study at Mogao, two international workshops were held at Mogao to address concerns about the growth of tourism, especially at World Heritage sites.

In 2009 a workshop entitled Advancing Sustainable Tourism at Natural and Cultural Heritage Sites was organized by the Australian and Chinese governments, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Dunhuang Academy, with support from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Tourism Working Group. The aim was to discuss tourism at World Heritage sites in relation to potential changes in the operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention. The workshop brought together experts and representatives from 21 countries. Read the report, Advancing Sustainable Tourism at Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, Mogao Caves World Heritage Site, China.

In May 2013 the Getty Conservation Institute, the Dunhuang Academy, and China ICOMOS co-organized a three-day invited international colloquium, Visitor Management and Carrying Capacity at World Heritage Sites in China, at the Mogao Grottoes for a more 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, including the Forbidden City, the Potala Palace, the Cultural Landscape of West Lake, Hangzhou, Longmen Grottoes, and the Classical Gardens at Suzhou, as well as international examples of visitor management at Angkor in Cambodia, Petra in Jordan, Port Arthur in Tasmania, and Alcatraz Island in the United States.

Extended Abstracts

For the non-Chinese audience in particular, this compilation provides a rare window onto the emerging trends in China to deal with issues of preserving cultural heritage in the face of mass tourism.

Page updated: August 2019