Dunhuang's American guardian angel talks conservation

08:08, October 15, 2010      

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Martha Victoria Demas

Martha Victoria Demas, who is an American Senior Project Specialist of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, California, won the "Friendship Award 2010" by Chinese State Government this year due to her excellent job and great contribution to the conservation of the Mogao Grottoes in Gansu Province.

Interviewer: What do you think about being awarded with China's Friendship Award 2010?

Demas: I think it was a great honor, and I know how important it is in China. I feel very privileged to receive the award. I also feel very privileged to be working with excellent Chinese colleagues who do wonderful work, want to learn and want to do what's best for China. It is a great working relationship. Our Chinese colleagues appreciate us for our expertise, and I appreciate their willing to learn from our experiences in cultural heritage conservation.

Interviewer: After more than 10 years of working in China's Dunhuang, do you still remember the first time you saw it?

Demas: Yes, I do. It was 1995, the very first year that I started working in China. Although I had already done lots of preparation work on Dunhuang due to the fact that my institution had been working there for many years already, I was still surprised by it. It was a magnificent site. There's nothing like it, really. It's an art gallery of Buddhist art in China. Although Dunhuang is located in the desert, every part of it —the wall paintings and sculpture inside the caves and the landscape outside — was absolutely magnificent. It deserves to be one of China's premier sites

Interviewer: As we all know, doing cultural heritage conservation is not an easy job. I wonder can you give me some examples of its challenges?

Demas: Yes, it does have lots of challenges. And one of the biggest ones, which is not just particular to Mogao, but also affects other sites globally, is managing visitors to the site. As a world-famous cultural heritage site, the Mogao Grottoes gets hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and that's quite difficult for a place that was not originally built to accommodate that many people, so we work together with the Dunhuang Academy to come up with strategies for managing visitors, trying to determine how many visitors should go to the site, how many is too many, that is, how many visitors can the site handle without causing deterioration of the art and the landscape. So we undertook scientific studies to look at the impacts that visitors have on the wall paintings.

We were also concerned about the visitors' experiences and interpretation. After so much work in this area, the Dunhuang Academy has become a real leader in visitor management in China, and their experiences and expertise are now excellent examples that other sites in China and the world should take learn from.

Talking about challenges, there is another big one, which is conserving wall paintings. We want to make sure the wall paintings are still there hundreds of years from now, so you have to understand why the wall paintings are deteriorating and that requires one to undertake scientific analysis and study of the problem. It is really looking at the way that materials decay, so that's a major aspect of the work as well. And we're trying to develop methodologies and treatments to address these problems.

Additionally, we also have to know about the environment and how to control it because we don't want the environment to fluctuate constantly in the caves, but rather to achieve a stable situation. We don't want too much humidity and moisture in the caves, so all of those factors you can try to control but it's extremely difficult because Dunhuang is not a museum. You can do climate control in a building but not for the caves and wall paintings at the site.

Interviewer: What if some natural disasters, like an earthquake, were to happen?

Demas: Well, if an earthquake happened, it could cause lots of damage. You know, you can prepare for earthquakes to know what to do and how to act quickly, but you can never prevent earthquakes. So you need to think about what measures should be put in place that might mitigate and lessen the impacts. It is really pretty limited what you can do when an earthquake strikes but you can prepare for before and after the earthquake.

Interviewer: Have you ever considered doing or you have already done some replicas of those wall paintings?

Demas: The Dunhuang Academy is famous for its copy work, and they have beautiful reproductions of the caves. Some caves in Dunhuang are too small to be visited, but people could visit the reproductions of those caves. So that's one way, and the other way is through photography. And increasingly the Dunhuang Academy is way ahead in terms of their photography program, and they are doing virtual reconstructions of the caves, which will potentially attract many visitors in the future and reduce the number of visitors to the actual caves of Mogao.

Interviewer: What's your motivation for choosing to work in China?

Demas: Actually, I came China as part of my job at the very beginning. My colleague , Neville Agnew, who also won the "Friendship Award" about ten years ago, introduced the Dunhuang program to the Getty and promoted the cooperation of China and the Getty in 1989. And I came to China in 1995 as a part of Getty's work. But certainly Dunhuang and China have aroused great interest in me since then. And after so many years working in a place filled with Buddhist art, I have taken some inspiration from the spirit of Buddhism too.

Mogao is such a magnificent place because of the beauty and history reflected in its art, and its setting in the desert surrounded by wonderful mountains and sand dunes. Working in places like Mogao is satisfying professionally and makes me feel lucky to work in this field.

It is really a great pleasure and great privilege for me to work in China with my excellent colleagues. I very much appreciate the recognition that my Chinese colleagues and China's State government has given to me, and the opportunity to work in China with the Chinese people.

From Editor: Martha Demas has made great contributions to the Mogao Grottoes in China. She took part in the development of important cultural heritage conservation documents, such as the "Principles for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage Sites in China," also known as the "China Principles". She helped China to establish a system of scientific guidelines for conservation, and to develop strategies for managing visitors as well as other important contributions. She deserves the "Friendship Award," the highest honor in China for foreign experts, and she deserves to be called "guardian angel" for looking after cultural heritage.

By Wang Hanlu, People's Daily Online


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