Among the fabulous cultural treasures of China, none is more spectacular than the painted cave temples of the vast grotto sites spread along a thousand miles of the Silk Road. At Dunhuang there are 45,000 m2 of wall painting in some 500 caves, and scores of other significant sites with extraordinary
wall paintings.

China, Dunhang, Cave 260, Northern Wei Period, Early 6th century
China, Dunhang, Cave 260, Northern Wei Period, Early 6th century

Recognising the challenge that long-term preservation of these sites posed, in 1989 the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) embarked on a collaborative programme with the Chinese authorities to develop solutions to daunting problems: preventive conservation (through environmental site stabilisation measures), site management (through development of national guidelines for the conservation and management of cultural heritage sites, the China Principles), research and implementation of remedial conservation (through a model project at Cave 85, Dunhuang), and training (through partnership with Chinese colleagues in all activities).

Given the scale and complexity of the problem, a high priority has been the establishment in China of a professional postgraduate course in wall painting conservation that would embed and extend the advances already made.

In parallel with these activities, the Courtauld has been educating wall painting conservators internationally, including all the professionally qualified wall painting conservators participating in the Dunhuang Cave 85 project. In addition, through research and fieldwork the Courtauld has developed particular expertise in the conservation of painting on earthen materials, of the type represented at Dunhuang and elsewhere in China.

Over the last few years the GCI, Dunhuang Academy (DA), Lanzhou University and the Courtauld have been developing a 3-year professional MA course in wall painting conservation. China has considerable teaching resources in the sciences and other related disciplines, but does not have a similar tradition of professional education in conservation. Consequently, it was agreed in July 2004 that as an integral part of the new Chinese MA (beginning autumn 2005) Cave 260 at Dunhuang would be conserved jointly by the Courtauld and the DA with the continuing collaboration of the GCI.

Cave 260 was selected from the DA’s list of approximately 50 most-endangered caves at Dunhuang. It dates from the early 6th century (Northern Wei period), is particularly beautiful, and presents a wide range of conservation problems that are typical not only for Dunhuang but for Chinese grotto paintings generally. The conservation programme will include 13 students from both the Chinese and Courtauld MA programmes, will cover all aspects of conservation (investigation of original techniques, diagnosis of deterioration, and treatment), and will include formal teaching by Courtauld and GCI staff. It will be supervised by 3 professional wall painting conservators (all Courtauld-educated, with two being team members of the Cave 85 project).

This project, agreed among the partners for three years from 2005, is essential to provide an integrated education in which theoretical teaching (provided by both Lanzhou University and the DA) is applied in a closely supervised context that encourages the development of individual skills and critical judgment.

The success of such an ambitious programme depends on a shared vision, dependable collaboration, and resources. The collaborating institutions are shaping the programme in a way that ensures the improved conservation of these wall paintings over the long term. The various partners have an extensive record of collaboration; not only has the GCI been working with our Chinese colleagues for some 16 years, but the Courtauld and the GCI have been partners in the education of wall painting conservators since 1985 when they jointly established the Courtauld MA programme.

Finally, providing professional education at this high level is resource-intensive and each partner is contributing. The Courtauld is very pleased to be able to publicly acknowledge its considerable debt to the generous benefactors of the Cave 260 project: Sir Joseph Hotung, Mr Norman Kurland, the Philanthropic Collaborative, the Robert Rosenkranz Foundation, and an anonymous donor. Without their support this programme would, quite simply, not be possible.

Sharon Cather, Conservation of Wall Paintings