Trying to "put Humpty Dumpty back together again"

xiangtangshan 3D head

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

This post, originally published by SAFE on July 25, 2011, is reposted here as the exhibition is now on view through Jan. 6 2012 at New York’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.


In a PBS report by Jeffrey Brown which aired on July 11, 2011, Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, said that during the 19th century when Chinese sculptures, created as religious icons, were first introduced to the West and became fine art. This created a demand from dealers, who then sold the objects to collectors and museums around the world, before laws were in place to prohibit such practice. This led to rampant looting of Buddhist caves and ancient sites.

One such site is Xiangtangshan (響堂山), the sixth-century group of caves, carved into the mountains in northern China. Although the limestone caves are still visited by worshipers as temples, they are now emptied of their original contents by looters to feed the international market demand.

Now, the exhibition “Echoes of the Past,” which originated from the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, has gathered together these objects that are now scattered around the world. Working with colleagues in China, experts have used virtual rendering to put back the sculptures in the caves where they originally belonged. Using “old-fashioned connoisseurship” and digitization which records very fine details correctly, it is now possible to “physically prove that a piece had been removed from the site.”

Why not recreate the cave and send everything back to China? According to Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, Wilson says, “the Chinese…haven’t made such a request.” Wilson also thinks that by allowing us to “see these elements back in place” the digital caves would offer an alternative to repatriation.

What do you think? The exhibition will travel to Dallas and San Diego next. The Sackler web site offers more information about the project and “Promoting the protection of Chinese cultural heritage.”

Photo: Jason Salavon and Travis Saul

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>