Using immersive technology to preserve China’s cultural heritage

UNSW's Sarah Kenderdine is presenting her immersive, 3D display of one of China’s most revered historical sites at the World Economic Forum this week.

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The dome's immersive environment encourages a kind of “sensorial and experiential enquiry”. Photo: supplied

Professor Sarah Kenderdine is presenting her immersive, 3D display of one of China’s most revered historical sites at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Chinese city of Dalian this week.

The ninth Annual Meeting of the New Champions is the WEF's global conference on innovation, science and technology which aims to explore innovative and entrepreneurial responses to the challenges of economic growth.

Kenderdine, from UNSW Art & Design, has been invited by the WEF to present her full-dome exhibition Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, an immersive, digital reproduction of the 1,500 year old Buddhist murals in the UNESCO world-heritage listed caves, one of China’s most revered historical sites.

As director of UNSW’s iGLAM Lab (Laboratory for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), Kenderdine’s research focuses on interactive and immersive experiences for museums and galleries.

“Pure Land is an example of how high-resolution digital archaeological datasets, like photography and 3D architectural models, can be integrated into interactive display systems,” she says.

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Laser scanning and ultra-high resolution photography offer a powerful way of ‘virtually' accessing historical sites that are under threat – Professor Sarah Kenderdine. Photo Quentin Jones

Kenderdine developed Pure Land to ensure the continued preservation of the Mogao Grottoes, which closed to the public after being threatened by tourism and climate change.

A team of 30 specialists, including world-leading authorities on the cave's murals from the Dunhuang Academy, developed Pure Land after a three-month period of capturing photos.

Based on their advice and art direction, a team of artists and animators were able to redraw and restore key iconographic elements in the murals, and create its 3D animated objects and 3D filmed dance sequences.  The animations, and 3D modelling, combined with Pure Land’s virtual reality technology, allow audiences to feel as if they are inside the cave.

“Laser scanning and ultra-high resolution photography offer a powerful way of ‘virtually' accessing historical sites that are under threat,” says Kenderdine, who says the recent destruction by Islamic State of the ancient Greco-Roman site of Palmyra in Syria demonstrates the necessity of preserving the world's “profound cultural heritage" in innovative ways.

She said the dome's immersive environment encourages a kind of “sensorial and experiential enquiry” from audiences that a traditional exhibition cannot.

“Dunhuang is one of China’s most revered sites – Pure Land demonstrates how to preserve, interprete and innovatively preserve this cultural heritage.”

Kenderdine will give a personalised tour of Pure Land to WEF founder Klaus Schwab. She will also take part in presentations on Buddhist cultural heritage with academics from China’s Tsinghua University and Venerable Master Xue Cheng, a spiritual leader from Longquan Temple.

WEF Arts & Culture Program Lead Nico Daswani said he hopes Pure Land will allow global decision makers to feel “a visceral connection to China’s heritage that statistics can’t provide”.

“In the context of the catastrophic destruction of cultural heritage we are witnessing in many countries, we need to move beyond indignation and towards action. I want Pure Land to elicit the response, ‘this is so beautiful and important – we have to protect it".