The Newsletter 79 Spring 2018

Longmen Grottoes: New Perspectives

Fletcher John Coleman

On 25-26 October 2017, Harvard University welcomed a team of experts from the Longmen Grottoes Research Academy to inaugurate an international joint-initiative focused on digital conservation and restoration. An enduring legacy to Chinese art, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Longmen Grottoes represents over a millennium of religious and creative activity. The ‘Longmen Grottoes: New Perspectives’ workshop brought together Longmen Academy researchers with specialists on Buddhist art from across the globe to promote cutting-edge efforts at digital preservation, archaeological work, and documentary projects taking place at Longmen.

Spearheaded by Eugene Wang, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University, and Hou Yuke, Director of the Material and Information Center at the Longmen Grottoes, the two-day event was centered on overviews of recent digital programs at Longmen. Tasked with addressing centuries of damage and dispersal of the magnificent limestone grotto sculptures, the Longmen Grottoes Research Academy began a comprehensive program of 3-D scanning over a decade ago. Having built an extensive database of cave scans, the Academy uses the information to conduct new efforts at preservation—including the redressing of groundwater and other environmental damage. The precision of the digital data has also driven exciting new archaeological discoveries in the eastern cave district at Longmen.

Scanning a Buddha statue in one of the Grottoes.

With technological efforts reaching a mature phase at the Longmen Grottoes, the Research Academy has turned its attention to the digital restoration of sculpture removed from the site during the early 20th century. The ‘Longmen Grottoes: New Perspectives’ workshop represented the inaugural partnering of Harvard University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Longmen Grottoes Research Academy to begin a 3-D digital scanning project of all known Longmen sculptures housed in institutions around the world. As data is collected, the caves will be digitally restored using a combination of virtual and augmented reality technologies. Algorithms are used to match fragmentary pieces with their original cave locations, allowing for the accurate virtual recreation of the sculptures to their original forms. Workshop participants were able to explore the Longmen Academy’s most recent sample cave restorations through a virtual reality experience. The Academy plans to build a site museum of digital restorations, as well as an immersive travelling exhibition.

Workshop participants were also treated to presentations on exciting new academic research being conducted on the Longmen Grottoes. Ranging from explorations of female agency in Buddhist patronage at Longmen to exciting new archival discoveries on the collecting history of the site, traditional research continues to play a crucial role in broadening our understanding of the Longmen Grottoes. Scholars remain eager to explore further horizons in their research through the new digitals tools offered by the Longmen Academy.

Fletcher John Coleman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University (