Neville Agnew, 77, an American PhD in chemistry and relics conservationist from the LA-based Getty Conservation Institute, has worked for more than two decades as its principal team leader in a protection and restoration project in the Mogao Grottoes, a world heritage site in northwest China.
The Mogao Grottoes, an expanse of 492 temple caves carved into cliffs on the edge of the Gobi desert in the oasis city of Dunhuang in northwest China's Gansu Province, contains a wealth of Buddhist art spanning a thousand years from the 4th to the 14th century. It represents the best of ancient murals and sculptures blending the culture of China and other countries due to Dunhuang being a major hub of the ancient Silk Road, a trade route linking East and West.
Like its intersecting art forms, the conservation for Mogao is also international. The Dunhuang Academy, set up for the research and protection of the Mogao Grottoes, began its collaboration with Getty in 1989. From then on, Agnew has paid regular visits and studied how to prevent the grottoes from further deteriorating due to natural and human effects, especially Cave 85, one of the most exquisite dating from the late Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Eight years of work by Agnew and his team has solved long-term problems for Cave 85 and made a breakthrough in conservation technology for Mogao. Agnew has also initiated a fence and planting system to hold back the corrosive Gobi sands.
Realizing a need for effective visitor management in the wake of increasing crowds at Mogao, Agnew and his staff, including personnel from both the Dunhuang Academy and Getty, studied how to strike a balance between tourism and preservation of the Mogao Grottoes and eventually worked out the maximum number of daily visitors without damage while ensuring a unique experience.
Besides, the Dunhuang Academy will be better able to manage crowds with the new visitor center planned by Former President Fan Jinshi of the Dunhuang Academy and opened last year. People need to make reservations to visit the center and will leave there for the caves by shuttle bus. This system, according to Fan, will allow the academy to limit the number of tourists to some 3,000 a day and limit the number of caves open to the public -- only about eight at a time.
"Fan Jinshi is a determined, strong defender of Dunhuang," said Agnew when talking about his working partner also close friend. "She has done the most important work of Dunhuang. We have different views and sometimes quarrel. However, we are frank and honest with each other … we have developed strong mutual trust."
The Dunhuang Academy has had a very good tradition from its early time and its staff, deeply understanding the value of the Mogao Grottoes, are all strong and persevering in the arduous work of research and relic restoration in such a remote desert area. Agnew attributed this determination to why Getty could have such cooperation with Dunhuang for 26 years. "I only made a small contribution. People here are so responsible and I am very proud of them."
According to Agnew, Getty and the Dunhuang Academy have also worked on instituting Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China, providing the country's first such rules for heritage protection.
Years of cooperation have helped build up a talent pool for the Dunhuang Academy, said Su Bomin, its restoration chief. Besides conservation in the Mogao Grottoes, Agnew and his U.S. colleagues helped train their Chinese counterparts from Dunhuang in both China and in the United States.
"They provided us not with money but with technology and expertise on solving thorny issues, which weighs more," said Su. Now, staff from the Dunhuang Academy are often invited to help by other relic places in China.
Agnew and his two U.S. colleagues from Getty have each won the Friendship Award, the top honor from the Chinese government for their contributions.
"I could imagine how it was like in the past," said Agnew. "Businessmen along the Silk Road traveled here after danger and hardship. What huge impact they would have when the monks took them into the cave, a wonderful paradise of color of beauty. They must be amazed and it was a way of showing a different, better life. That was the power of this place."
To unfold the power of the Mogao Grottoes to more people, especially Westerners who know little about it, a large-scale exhibition will be held in Getty museum from May 7 to Sep 4 in 2016 and Agnew will be the curator for the display.
"Conservation is art and science and that's beauty," said Agnew, a person in love of nature and culture who has set his feet in the world for relics research and preservation.