The region around Dunhuang, China, is forbidding today, but it once was once part of a busy trade route. Between the fourth and 14th centuries, it was also a center of devotion.
“If you ever have been there, you will not forget it — 500 caves, all painted, with sculptures, and it is an astonishing place of contemplation and of worship,” said Thomas Gaehtgens of the Getty Research Institute.
The so-called Mogao Caves are located 25 kilometers from Dunhuang in China's Gobi Desert. Since 1989, the Getty Conservation Institute has helped Chinese experts with conservation. Tim Whalen of the institute said they are coping with more than flaking paint.
“It’s not just flaking paint. It’s sandstorms, it’s hundreds of thousands of tourists every year," said Tim Whalen of the conservation institute. "So you have to pick apart all the various challenges, which we’ve done with the Dunhuang Academy, the stewards of the site.”
The caves were closed for many centuries but today host nearly 1 million visitors a year.
“It is a very big challenge," said Wang Xudong of the Dunhuang Academy. "We need to balance conservation and tourism.”
He said local officials welcome the visitors. Conservationists try to prevent damage to the important site, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles will display three full-size replicas of caves and their paintings, so visitors can experience the art without going to China.
The exhibition will also feature rare original textiles, drawings and manuscripts, including a ninth-century copy of a Buddhist scripture, the Diamond Sutra, on loan from the British Library. It's the world's oldest complete and dated printed book.
The exhibition will tell the story of the caves, said Ted Lipman of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, one of the sponsors.
“What we’re looking at will not just be the art itself but looking at the work that has been done through international cooperation to preserve these resources for the world to enjoy,” Lipman said.
The exhibit, "Cave Temples of Dunhuang," will open in Los Angeles in May next year.