Restoring An Asian Cultural Heritage Collection

If you’ve taken Asian art history courses with Professor Michelle Wang, you probably already know about the International Dunhuang Project (IDP), an initiative based at the British Library to digitally catalog manuscripts, artworks, and archaeological artifacts from northwestern China and eastern Central Asia that are dispersed in museum and library collections worldwide. 

Example of a scroll from Dunhuang. Khotanese animal 'zodiac' The twelve-year animal cycle was not Chinese in origin. It was used throughout Central Asia and is found in Sogdian, Sanskrit, Tocharian, Gāndhārī and Turkic manuscripts as well as Chinese and Tibetan sources. This early ninth-century document from Khotan lists the animals in the cycle with predictions for people born in that year. This is the second of four panels which were originally glued together to form a scroll. For a man born in the year of the monkey it predicts many sons, servants and horses but he will have to live 'in a land far away'. Ink on paper The British Library, Or.11252/1

Example of a scroll from Dunhuang
Khotanese animal ‘zodiac’
Ink on paper
The British Library, Or.11252

The goal of the International Dunhuang Project is to make images of these objects freely available to scholars on a multilingual website, thereby consolidating disparate collections and making them available for study. To understand why these items have been dispersed throughout the world requires a bit of colonial-era back story.

Cave 16 at the Buddhist caves near Dunhuang. The piles of scrolls and tables were probably added to the negative by the photographer, showing the empty cave after his original photograph of this scene was double exposed. Photograph, M. Aurel Stein, 1907 ©Ruins of Desert Cathay, Fig. 188.

Cave 16 at the Buddhist caves near Dunhuang, with the opening to Cave 17, the “library cave,” to the right. The piles of scrolls and tables were probably added to the negative by the photographer, showing the empty cave after his original photograph of this scene was double exposed. Photograph, M. Aurel Stein, 1907 ©Ruins of Desert Cathay, Fig. 188.

Little was known of the archaeological heritage of the Silk Road, a network of trade routes throughout Asia responsible for tremendous cultural exchange from the beginning of the common era until explorers and archaeologists of the early twentieth century uncovered the ruins of ancient cities in the desert sands. Their discoveries revealed astonishing sculptures, mural paintings, and manuscripts. One of the most notable discoveries was the Buddhist “library cave” near the oasis town of Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi desert in western China. This man-made cave had been sealed at the end of the first millennium AD and only re-discovered in 1900. More than fifty thousand manuscripts, paintings and printed documents on paper and silk were found in the cave itself. According to the IDP, thousands more items were excavated from other Silk Road archaeological sites. Most of these items were carted off to institutions worldwide in the early 1900s, forever altering the original sites.

This year, the IDP’s new joint project with Georgetown University aims to cooperate with North American libraries, museums, and private collections to incorporate any manuscripts, artworks, and artifacts from the region into its database. It’s a grand sleuthing operation and the first time that the IDP has concentrated solely on objects in North American collections. So, dear readers, if you work for a cultural institution with any of the following, please contact Miki Morita, the Georgetown-IDP Postdoctoral Research Fellow for North American Silk Road Collections and help restore the integrity of the dispersed artifacts.

And if you’re curious to see images from the Dunhuang cave’s first re-discovery by turn-of-the century archaeologists, you can explore the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive in Artstor.

The target objects of this project can be defined as follows:

– Various types of media, such as manuscripts, woodblock prints,

Dignitary with beard Glazed earthenware and unfired pigments Cat.157; Victoria and Albert Museum, C.222–1034

Dignitary with beard
Glazed earthenware and unfired pigments
Cat.157; Victoria and Albert Museum, C.222–1034

   – From a geographical region covered by archaeological expeditions in the early 20th century (roughly corresponding to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, western Inner Mongolia, and Gansu Province of the People’s Republic of China). We are also interested in objects considered to originate from “Central Asia,” “Mongolia,” and “Tibet” as potential material for the database.

– From the period between 200 BC and AD 1400.

– Any archival records (ex. letters and photographs) related to
archaeological expeditions in the early 20th century which covered a geographical region defined above.

Exemplary pieces can be found in the IDP’s database. Please be reminded that the scope of the IDP database also encompasses possibly forged pieces.

If your institution holds pieces that are possibly relevant to the IDP’s database, please contact Dr. Miki Morita (mm3846@georgetown.edu).

 

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