Partnering to Preserve the Culture of the Tibetan Plateau: The Mural Conservation Project

Deteriorating wall paintings of eastern Tibet

Minyag, a secluded region of Sichuan’s Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, has received growing attention for its rich architectural heritage. But it is only recently that preservation efforts have focused on that which has remained hidden inside many of the region’s historically significant structures. Across the Tibetan Plateau, a small number of original murals—many dating back from early periods of the last millennium—can still be found in Buddhist temples and in the homes of community members. In Minyag, the wall paintings that have survived to the present day are concealed within the chapels of the region’s oldest private homes. These significant examples of Mahayana Buddhist art have escaped the attention of Tibetologists and art historians. Their fragile states after generations of neglect and exposure to the elements call for immediate attention. Partnering with communities of Minyag, The Bridge Fund (TBF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have initiated the Mural Conservation Project. This project links the people of Minyag with leading international art conservators in order to restore and preserve mural sites while also providing members of the community with training in the skills that will allow them to continue assessment and conservation work throughout the region.

Project participants engaged in workshop presentations

An essential component of the initiative focuses on increasing awareness of the value of cultural heritage and the vital role that community member’s play in its preservation. The rapid changes that are occurring across the Tibetan Plateau have impacted local perceptions toward items of antiquity: all things new are often prized over those seen as old or traditional. As a result, Minyag residents are replacing the original murals in their homes with new wall paintings, using techniques and materials of inferior quality that quickly degrade. The project team has partnered with local spiritual leader and architect, Minyag Choekyi Gyaltsan, to help community members gain a better understanding of their local cultural legacy. The project’s focus on the value of Minyag’s cultural heritage is fostering renewed appreciation by the community for their murals and enthusiasm to take part in preservation efforts as the paintings’ primary guardians.

Participants completing condition assessment

TBF and UNESCO’s partnership in Minyag began with an assessment mission in 2009 which allowed the project team to survey the mural sites, conduct preliminary tests and begin the design of a long-term conservation training program for community members. Preparation in 2009 was followed by a field mission and intensive training in the fall of 2010 with the participation of two international conservators: Mr. Sanjay Dhar, an expert from India who specializes in Tibetan murals and scroll paintings; and Ms. Sophie Duong, an expert from France who specializes in mural painting traditions of Southeast Asia and Europe. The conservators and project team presented a 3-day interactive workshop that introduced the concepts behind heritage protection. The 33 participating individuals—which included mural site home owners, village elders, and members of the local monastic community—discussed Minyag’s significance within the wider context of Tibetan art and the world’s painting traditions, and were given their first introduction to conservation strategies.

The 3-day workshop was followed by a 17-day hands-on training for a team of eight individuals to learn basic conservation skills. The training took place in Minyag’s Sade Township at a mural site in a local family’s home. Covering large portions of the walls, ceiling and supporting pillars, these particular murals are believed to be 700 hundred years old. Conservation trainees learned the important steps in condition assessment and the charting of treatment plans on site. The emphasis of the training was on practical experience with each participant given the opportunity to practice documentation techniques and explore causes of deterioration. They were also able to complete an analysis of the traditional techniques and materials used in the original murals, helping the participants—many of whom are painters themselves—improve the quality of their paintings. As the trainees apply the conservation techniques they have learned to further sites, the project team has encouraged the creation and use of a vernacular vocabulary for technical terms and ideas so that conservation can more easily be assimilated as a local practice.

Now having completed the first year of this three-year initiative, the Mural Conservation Project is off to a promising start. The team has designed the next steps for the project which will ensure the continued training of local novice conservators with the goal of gradually reducing the involvement of external experts. Developing local expertise through education and skills training are essential to ensuring the sustainable success of the project and will ultimately be of greatest benefit to the preservation of the significant cultural heritage of the surrounding region.

Artisans analyzing handicraft quality standards during group exercises

As Minyag’s team of conservators ready for their next season of mentorship, a group of 20 artisans have just received similarly valuable training to expand their abilities in their respective crafts. Through the establishment of the Artisans Skills Project, TBF and UNESCO are helping Tibetan artisans develop skills that will allow them to improve their product design and marketability while cultivating greater opportunity for the continuation of traditional Tibetan art forms. In February of 2011, a group of 20 individuals reflecting a diverse range of Tibetan artistic traditions and backgrounds traveled to Chengdu to complete a 5-day training. The project team was joined by international expert, Mr. Joseph Lo, who has close to a decade of experience working with arts and crafts in central Tibet and Bhutan.

The UNESCO-developed curriculum emphasized the importance of maintaining high standards of product quality and discussed the degradation of these standards, which often occurs when handicrafts are produced for the mass tourist market. Participants analyzed handicrafts that have won the UNESCO Award of Excellence and were asked to define excellence in relation to design, form, finishing, and marketing of handicraft products. Participants then gathered in small groups by their media—stone and metal, leather and textiles, and incense, thangka and paper—and were given the opportunity to discuss what constitutes a traditional Tibetan handicraft. The interactive sessions allowed the artisans to explore how far they can take innovation in product design while staying true to Tibetan tradition. The training encouraged a sense of creativity: the artisans were encouraged to use traditional materials, techniques and designs as their base for new product development. The Artisan Skills Project is working in association with TBF’s Mandala Business Development Center which is managing the establishment of the Artisan Training Center, a facility that will provide ongoing education, generate income opportunities, and serve as a marketplace for Tibetan craft production through an attached outlet shop.

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