Since its establishment over thirty years ago, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) has undertaken collaborative field projects as part of its mandate to address conservation of movable and immovable cultural heritage internationally. Within three years after its founding, the GCI embarked on what has proven to be its most enduring partnership, entering into an agreement with China for the conservation of two ancient Buddhist sites: the Yungang Grottoes, around three hundred kilometers from Beijing, and the Mogao Grottoes, a Silk Road site near Dunhuang about sixteen hundred kilometers west of the capital.

Yungang, an enormously important fifth- to sixth-century site now on the World Heritage List, comprises fifty-three large cave temples and thousands of niches and stone statues carved in a cliff face near the coal-mining city of Datong in Shanxi province. Mogao, inscribed on the World Heritage List in the first tranche of six sites proposed by China in 1987, includes hundreds of cave temples dating from the fourth to fourteenth centuries.

early years at mogao and yungang

Ratification by China of UNESCO's World Heritage Convention in 1985 was a seminal event in drawing attention to the nation's needs in cultural heritage preservation. In the wake of ratification, the GCI was approached for assistance through the UNESCO representative in Beijing. After a fact-finding mission by the Institute's first director, Luis Monreal, and further exploratory missions in 1988, a memorandum was signed in 1989 by the Getty and China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH, then known as the National Administrative Bureau for Museums and Archaeological Data).

By then, China had emerged from its long isolation. The country's conservation professionals tried to catch up with developments in theory and practice, but the results, in the early days, were often poor intervention and sometimes harmful practice. Conservation was believed to comprise only “treatment” and to be based on scientific and technological know-how. Monitoring and maintenance were not commonplace, and the idea of preventive practice had not yet permeated policy. Values—expressed in heritage law as artistic, historic, and scientific—were assumed to be self-evident, not subject to discovery through detailed research and analysis, whereas site management was viewed as an entirely separate activity from conservation. Moreover, the emphasis was on materials used in conservation and the “formula” rather than the process.

This was particularly true at Yungang, where concerns about water permeation through the sandstone cliff and severe pollution from both coal mining and burning near the site predominated. Work at Yungang focused on mitigation of water seepage and an intensive monthlong, round-the-clock study of pollutants and airborne particulates by California Institute of Technology environmental scientists contracted by the GCI. The data helped quantify the intrusion of gaseous pollutants and the severe deposition of particulates on the sculpture in the caves. These studies prompted the eventual prohibition of coal mining, transportation, and burning in the immediate vicinity of the site. An objective of early GCI work at Yungang was to promote the adoption of practice that favored decision-making as a final step based on careful assessment, not as the first step. A 1992 site management training course, attended by managers and conservation professionals from other sites in China, including the Dunhuang Academy director, affected the start of this process.

For five years, the Institute worked at both sites before deciding to concentrate on Mogao. For logistical reasons—and because Yungang was not well staffed or led by heritage professionals—the decision was made to focus on Mogao, which, though remote, offered a more sustainable partnership and collaborative opportunities through the site authority, the Dunhuang Academy.

Early work at Mogao laid the foundation for the collaboration that has lasted over twenty-five years. Since its founding in 1944, the Dunhuang Academy had made great progress in site protection and stabilization. The cliff face had been buttressed and stabilized, the flood threat had been addressed, security of the site and its art was effective, and replication of the wall paintings and sculpture of the cave temples was established as a core activity. But at the start of the 1990s there remained profound needs in scientific expertise, control of wind-driven sand, and site management, as well as monitoring climate and environment in the caves and determining deterioration mechanisms of the wall paintings. The GCI worked effectively with Academy leadership and staff to effect improvements, which were detailed in the first international conference at the site in 1993. Following the formal evaluation of the project in 1995, the collaboration shifted from a focus on external site-wide impacts to wall painting conservation, management planning, and policy issues.

The China Principles

In 1996, after six years of working at the Yungang and Mogao Grottoes, establishing professional relationships and acquiring an enhanced understanding of local and national conservation practice and challenges, the GCI began broadening its engagement with cultural heritage in China. This effort led to a project to develop national guidelines, known as the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China, formally begun in 1997.

Although strong Chinese legislation existed to protect heritage sites, professionals lacked exposure to international practice and the guiding documents on policy, principles, and planning methodologies. For this reason, SACH felt that external input in formulating principles was valuable, and thus the guidelines were undertaken collaboratively with the GCI, which sought and obtained the participation of the Australian Heritage Commission.

In developing the Principles, workshops were held over a three-year period at diverse sites in China, Australia, and the United States, exemplifying the wide range of issues. An ongoing goal was to illustrate how values assessment led to management policies and decisions about how to conserve, present, and interpret sites and how to develop a planning process that both adhered to international concepts and incorporated procedures long established in China. In the workshops and meetings, much discussion was also devoted to creating a vocabulary of terms and concepts in English and Chinese that were cross-culturally understandable.

The Principles were issued by ICOMOS China in 2000, and the decade that followed witnessed a maturation of practice and theoretical developments in cultural heritage conservation and management. It was also a time of greater engagement and awareness of international developments related to cultural heritage. In response, SACH and ICOMOS China felt it appropriate to renew the Principles and expand the thematic content. The GCI participated in the revision, whose aim was to update and clarify the principles in light of recent thinking and practice in China and to better reflect the international understanding that now prevails about what constitutes cultural heritage.

As part of the process, the GCI organized a US workshop for core members of the committee charged with the revision. The workshop explored the concepts of historic cultural landscapes, living heritage sites, memorial sites, cultural routes, and industrial and scientific heritage through a series of site visits, meetings, and discussions in Hawaii and the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Among the heritage places visited were examples of twentiethcentury industrial heritage adaptively reused (the Ford Assembly Plant in Richmond, California); sites of technological and scientific importance (the 1904 astronomical observatory on Mount Wilson, above Los Angeles, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, both of which still serve scientific and public roles while recognized as historic landmarks); commemorative sites (the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii); and sites illustrating aspects of social and cultural history (the Alcatraz Island prison and the immigration station on Angel Island, both in San Francisco Bay).

These visits provided examples of varied and complex management structures and methods of protection, interpretation, and visitor management that helped stimulate an enlargement of thematic content. The revised China Principles document, completed in 2015, contains forty-seven principles, associated commentary explaining and amplifying each principle, and an updated glossary of terms. A bilingual version was prepared, designed, and published by ICOMOS China, with the GCI facilitating and editing the English translation.

Applying the China Principles in Practice

Training professionals in the purpose and use of the China Principles, applying them to real-life situations, and developing regulations concerning master planning for heritage sites were key activities of the Chinese authorities in the decade after initial completion of the Principles. The GCI has been very involved in applying the Principles, beginning in their developmental stage, at the Mogao Grottoes and the Imperial Mountain Resort at Chengde.

The Mogao Grottoes

At Mogao, the Principles were applied at several levels. The partners began by drafting a comprehensive master plan for the site according to the planning process advocated in the Principles. Two major components—wall painting conservation and visitor management—were selected for in-depth assessment and action plans to address specific challenges, followed by implementation.

Beginning in 1997, the collaboration focused on the conservation of wall paintings. From the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, the cave temples of Mogao were hewn into a rock cliff face of soft conglomerate. The walls were plastered with a mixture of clay, sand, and plant fiber, and the paintings were executed as line drawings in ink on a ground layer covering the earthen plaster, then filled in with mineral pigments and washes of organic colorants. For centuries the paintings have suffered deterioration of various kinds, from flaking of the paint layer to progressive loss of adhesion between the conglomerate and the plaster. The latter problem is the most serious and is common in Mogao and other grotto sites. Large areas of the paintings have been lost as detachment ultimately leads to collapse of the painted plaster.

To develop effective measures to stabilize the paintings and to address the causes of their deterioration, Cave 85, constructed in the Tang dynasty (618–906), was chosen as a case study for the development and implementation of a rigorous methodology based on the China Principles. Completed in 867, Cave 85 is among the larger cave temples at Mogao and contains some 350 square meters of the highest quality wall paintings of the late-Tang dynasty. It was selected because the deterioration of its wall paintings—in particular, the widespread exfoliation of paint and plaster detachment from the bedrock—is representative of problems faced in many of the site's caves. Deterioration of the wall paintings at Mogao had never been studied in a way that allowed for development of appropriate conservation interventions and preventive measures to reduce the rate of deterioration over the long term.

The ten-year project involved study and analytical investigations of the painting techniques and materials, comprehensive environmental monitoring to understand the sources of moisture in the cave and walls, analytical work on the salts in the cave, extensive testing to develop an appropriate grouting material for the detached plaster and for other treatment interventions, and development of preventive measures to reduce risk of further deterioration. Conservation of Cave 85 was completed in 2010, and the project's final report was translated into Chinese. The English version was published in 2013.

Public Art, Public Spaces

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, an explosive rise in tourism, predominantly domestic, emerged as one of the greatest problems facing the Dunhuang Academy. Sustainable use of heritage sites was, and remains, a challenge at iconic sites. At Mogao, the situation had reached crisis dimensions, threatening the cave art while simultaneously degrading the visitor experience through overcrowding in the confined spaces of the rock-cut caves and along narrow access walkways. The site's master 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 for a better understanding of the causes of deterioration—and whether (and to what degree) visitation contributed to the decay and damage found in the wall paintings. The visitor 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 is integral to the larger visitor management plan that includes a new visitor center, opened in 2014, 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, in whole or in part, to other sites facing debilitating tourism growth. Better integration of management systems and monitoring of operations is an ongoing activity as visitor numbers climb, reaching one million in 2015. Thorough assessment and planning have laid solid groundwork for maximizing visitation while preserving the site and its art.

The Imperial Mountain Resort at Chengde and Shuxiang Temple

To complement the work at Mogao, the GCI sought a challenging architectural project for application of the Principles—one that addressed how traditional wooden architecture and its decoration are valued and how decisions are made about its preservation. That challenge was found at the Imperial Mountain Resort at Chengde, some two hundred kilometers north of Beijing and beyond the Great Wall. Established as the summer capital of the Qing emperors in 1703, it includes the resort itself—a palace complex with extensive landscaped gardens, mountains, pavilions, and water features, set in a large natural park of some six hundred hectares (twelve hundred acres), and enclosed by a ten-kilometer wall. Outside the wall there were originally twelve Buddhist temples, which primarily served the Qing political interest in uniting Tibetan, Mongolian, and other ethnic groups in the empire's border regions.

As at Mogao, the project began with master planning for the site, prioritizing the problems associated with conserving historic architecture. The temple buildings are extensively preserved and exhibit a variety of styles representing the ethnic minorities, but almost all have been subject to restoration over many decades. The one exception—Shuxiang Temple—became the locus of the application project.

Although the temple was in a state of decay and had lost many of its subsidiary buildings, it retained original, late-eighteenth-century building materials, furnishings, and sculpture in the surviving main hall (Huicheng Hall) and gatehouse, and thus it offered an interesting case for the decision-making process outlined in the China Principles. Any discussion of architectural values and decisionmaking necessarily leads back to the early twentieth century, when conservation concepts were being formulated for the first time in China by Liang Sicheng, a pioneering architectural historian. It also looks forward to contemporary considerations of Western versus Eastern traditions, a central debate in conservation theory and one in which understanding significance and context is critical to decision-making.

The Shuxiang Temple project has involved historical research, compilation of existing documentation and historic photographs, and surveying to produce a new site plan; assessment of the site's condition, significance, and management context; and research and analytical investigations into the materials and techniques of construction and decoration, particularly the extant decorative architectural painting.

Assessment of significance placed Shuxiang Temple in its broader architectural context. At Chengde, as elsewhere in China, decades of extensive restoration of Qing architecture have meant that original Qing imperial fabric is becoming rare. Understanding this scarcity led to the decision to conserve the temple buildings, ruins, and surviving original architectural painting, sculpture, and furnishings in their current state, rather than restore them. Once this decision was made, research and testing were needed to develop conservation treatments utilizing, as far as possible, traditional materials. Shuxiang Temple thus provides a model for a systematic approach to the conservation of Qing dynasty imperial architecture. The plans for the site have been largely implemented by the project partners—the Chengde and Hebei Cultural Heritage Bureaus and the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage—with completion expected in 2017.

Partnership: The Measure of Success

By every measure, the partnerships established with SACH, and the Dunhuang Academy in particular, have been a sustained success. Collaboration across barriers of culture and language, not to mention distance, is difficult. When Academy director Fan Jinshi was asked what enabled the two organizations to work together for so long, she named common goals, well-defined and clearly stated objectives, a good conservation and management methodology (the China Principles), and the sharing of work. Above all, openness and trust were identified as essentials. Trust is built over time, so new partnerships can be fragile as parties learn about each other and establish a relationship. Critical to the success of any collaboration are the personnel and personalities involved—and in this, the GCI has been very fortunate.

The GCI has also been privileged to have forged and sustained fruitful relationships at both the national and site levels. Zhang Bai, deputy director of SACH, and his successor, Tong Mingkang, have both supported the collaborations on the China Principles, at Dunhuang, and at Chengde. At Mogao, director Fan Jinshi and her successor as of 2016, Wang Xudong, have ensured that the relationship was and is maintained at the highest level. Just as sustainability is important in the relationship, so is stability of partner personnel. A project is unlikely to flourish with frequent leadership and personnel changes. Thus, the leaders mentioned above have been constants in the equation for over twenty-five years.

Relationships have also been sustained through training and capacity building. Advanced training for Academy staff members has taken place at the GCI since 2001, and capacity building for young and midlevel professionals from SACH has been ongoing since 2007, with visiting staff spending between one and three months at the GCI, undertaking research and working with GCI staff to gain a more nuanced understanding of the GCI and international conservation. The GCI has hosted forty-three visiting professionals from SACH, the Academy, and other institutions in China to date.

A partnership must be a vessel for all the partners. Not all ships complete the voyage, but the best chance for keeping a ship buoyant and on course depends not only on an emphasis on a project's professional and technical aspects but, with equal importance, on attention to the relationship itself.

Neville Agnew is a GCI senior principal project specialist. Martha Demas is a GCI senior project specialist. Lorinda Wong is a GCI project specialist.