Digitally Preserving China’s Relics

Some of the most advanced imaging technology available is being used to photograph and help preserve a unique and historically significant Buddhist temple near Xi’an, China. In a major collaborative effort, media experts and software development specialists from Northwestern University Information Technology (NUIT) are working with the Shaanxi Provincial Wenwujiu (cultural relics bureau) to completely document the interior of the Shuilu’an Temple in high–resolution digital imagery.

Key staff from NUAMPS (Northwestern University Advanced Media Production Studio), a unit of NUIT Academic Technologies, traveled to Xi’an in October to launch the initial acquisition phase of the 18–month Shuilu’an project, which is funded through a $475,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Besides support for the exacting digital photography in China, Foundation funding will allow for continued training and educational cooperation between Northwestern University and Chinese cultural institutions, and for software development by Academic Technologies of a computer interface that will allow scholars and students alike to study the Shuilu’an Temple. The temple building dates to the Tang Dynasty, ca. 1000 A.D.; the sculptures being imaged inside the temple are Ming Dynasty, ca. 1500 A.D.

“The Shuilu’an project represents an important step in a much larger initiative of imaging cultural heritage sites,” said Harlan Wallach, media services architect for NUAMPS and principal investigator for the Mellon Foundation grant. “Northwestern is working at the forefront of this field as a result of our team members’ expertise in the areas of digital imaging, software interface development, and digital collections architecture.”

The entire interior of the Shuilu’an Temple is encrusted with thousands of intricately designed, 500–year–old terra–cotta sculptures of the Buddha, many of which have begun to collapse due to age. Acquisition of detailed photography is not only of cultural and historic importance, but could be the last chance to record the unadulterated Ming Dynasty sculpture work in the Tang Dynasty temple.

Project members in China include the Shaanxi Provincial Wenwujiu and the Dunhuang Research Academy (DRA). A Northwestern team previously collaborated with the DRA on a four–year photographic initiative in Dunhuang, China funded by the Mellon Foundation. The work in Dunhuang resulted in an extensive series of wall mural images for the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive (MIDA) component of the ARTstor Digital Library, ARTstor is licensed to universities and museums throughout the world.

The Academic Technologies team working in Xi’an is building upon technological developments accomplished first in Dunhuang, but the team is being challenged to extend these digital practices into the intensely three–dimensional environment of high–relief sculpture at the Shuilu’an Temple. In response to these challenges, Northwestern has brought in a specialty engineering team from Austria (Linsinger–Kultur) that will perform detailed laser scans of selected sections of the temple sculptures. Post–production work in Evanston during 2006 will merge the laser–scan 3D data set with the high–resolution photographic images, and also develop a scholar’s toolset for study of the temple’s interior. The temple images remain the property of the Shaanxi Provincial Wenwujiu in China, but a copy of the results will be available in a future version of ARTstor.

“This is an exciting collaboration that is attempting to break new ground on several levels of cultural documentation,” said Wallach. “Not only is the project team producing a lasting archive of Shuilu’an, our Chinese colleagues will be trained in the use of imaging techniques and methods of 3D capture and application. Their team represents a high level of expertise, and we’re expecting very rewarding results.”