Sharon Cather, world-renowned expert in ancient wall painting conservation, has been working with the Dunhuang Research Academy for more than 20 years.
As a professor at the University of London, Cather teaches Master's and PhD students about the conservation of wall paintings on structure buildings and excavated caves. She has an additional title in China, professor for international MA students of mural protection at the Dunhuang Research Academy, China's national institution, which is responsible for conserving, managing and researching the Mogao Grottoes, Yulin Grottoes, and the Western Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Dunhuang, in northwest China's Gansu Province.
The Mogao Grottoes, a World Heritage Site near Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, are where generations of Buddhist monks built hundreds of rock temples. Nearly five hundred grottoes remain, lined with painted clay sculptures and wall paintings that depict legends, portraits, customs, and arts of China.
China has been short of professionals in wall painting conservation for decades. In addition, wall painting conservation, according to Cather, is a multi-disciplinary subject that involves archaeology, history, chemistry, humanity and science, therefore it requires an inter-disciplinary education, which is less developed in China.
With Cather's help and coordination, the Dunhuang Research Academy, U.S. Getty Conservation, the University of London and Lanzhou University launched a joint cross-border program in 2005, with the aim of spreading knowledge of conservation in China. The program focuses on two areas: education of those who will have long-term responsibility for the preservation of the paintings; and research which has the widest possible applicability to paintings throughout the site and to the many other grotto sites in China and elsewhere.
Under the program, around every group of 15 university students from these organizations and other Chinese universities will study wall painting conservation for three years, with two months in Dunhuang so that they can combine their theory with field study at Mogao Grottoes. Teachers on the program are professors and experts from the organizations, including Cather. So far two groups of students have graduated from the program, which is building up a talent pool for China's ancient murals.
The Mogao Grottoes, a World Heritage Site near Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, are where generations of Buddhist monks built hundreds of rock temples.
"The idea is not to teach my students here how to do things, but how to think about problems and come up with a long-term solution," said Cather.
"My conviction is to let my students have a whole overview list of the problems in wall painting and consider potential solutions, as they must be able to understand different disciplines including science, history and chemistry," said Cather.
Mogao Grottoes is one of the most fabulous world heritage sites in China with incredible importance, Cather said.
Yet due to historical and natural reasons, it has suffered damages. Over the past several decades, China has been dedicated to saving the Mogao Grottoes. These include conservation to restore and consolidate the cliff surface, the caves, the statues and the murals.
According to Dunhuang Research Academy, many large projects have been in collaboration with local or overseas institutions including Getty.
To better protect the Mogao Grottoes, Cather said there needs to be fewer tourists at the location. "Mogao is very remote. It used to take quite long time to get there," said Cather. In the last five years, there have been more tourists, mostly Chinese, and they drive there in their big four-wheeled SUVs. The caves are too fragile to cope with this challenge."
"The number of tourists increases by 15 percent every year," said Cather. The good thing is that a digital visitor center has been established which provides multimedia virtual tour presentations for the visitors, allowing them to see more Dunhuang art in greater detail and help conserve the treasures inside the caves.
"When you go to Dunhuang, caves that are more than a thousand years old, you walk into history," said Cather. "It is important we preserve them and recognize the value of sites."
In October 2014, Cather won the Friendship Award, China's top honor for foreign experts working in the country.
"I am dedicated to preserving wall paintings all over the world. In China, I share the commitment with the Dunhuang Research Academy," she said.