New exhibit features life-size 3D replica of ancient Buddhist Yungang Grottoes

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The Zhejiang University Museum of Art and Archaeology (ZJUMAA) in China has inaugurated a new exhibit, called “Grace and Grandeur: Memories of Yungang Grottoes through a Century,” which is dedicated to the famous ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes in the province of Shanxi. One of the highlights of the new exhibition is a life-size, moveable 3D printed replica of the Yungang Grottoes, which help to immerse visitors in the learning experience.

The Yungang Grottoes date back to the 5th century and consist of 45 major caves and over 50,000 smaller statues which have been intricately carved out sandstone. The expansive site, spanning 2,600 feet in length and up to 60 feet in height, is one of the most famous examples of ancient Buddhist sculpture and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The newly launched exhibit at the ZJUMAA seeks to bring the magic of the grottoes to its visitors in a way that they can not only learn about the famed location but also experience it, even in a small way.

The 3D printed replica of a Yungang cave was created by the Cultural Heritage Institute of Zhejiang University and the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute. The partners worked together for three years to achieve breakthroughs in data collection and processing, structural design and block printing and coloring. Now, the result of this hard work is on display for the world to see.

Yungang Grottoes exhibition
(Photo: ZJUMAA)

Since it was impossible to replicate the entire Buddhist sculptural site, the specialized team selected one of the most notable caves to reproduce. The cave in question is known as Cave No. 12, or the Cave of Music, because of its depiction of gods playing different musical instruments. In fact, the gods represented in the cave carvings are considered to the be the earliest court symphony orchestra in ancient China. The cave itself is quite spacious, measuring 14 meters in depth, 11 meters in width and 9 meters in height.

The replication process for the cave started in 2016, when the partners started collecting digital 3D data of the cave using photogrammetry and 3D laser scanning. With this data, the team was able to create a 3D model of the cave, which was then segmented into 3D printable blocks. In the end, the model was separated into 110 pieces (weighing a total of two tons), which could be assembled for exhibition and disassembled for transport. The team says it takes about eight standard container trucks to move the large structures and about a week to assemble them.

In terms of the detail of the replica cave, the team says it is accurate within 2mm of the original and that the installation’s colours are also over 95% accurate. The coloring effect was achieved by using natural mineral pigments, not unlike how the original caves would have been painted nearly 2,000 years ago. The painstaking process of adding color to the reproduction cave reportedly took about eight months to complete.

Yungang Grottoes exhibition
(Photo: ZJUMAA)

When assembled, the cave structure is held up by a lightweight aluminum alloy frame, on which the large blocks can be secured. The rest of the installation process consists of stacking the blocks from top to bottom. The impressive 3D cave structure is the first moveable, life-sized replica of the Yungang Grottoes.

“One of the primary ways of preserving cultural relics is to chronicle them digitally and set up an elaborate digital document,” said Li Zhirong, Vice Director of the Cultural Heritage Institute of Zhejiang University. “Through 3D printing, digitalized records can reach the standards of archaeological records. The Yungang Grottoes can therefore ‘become alive’ and ‘go global’, enabling the public to appreciate the charm of history.”

Lou Kecheng, Executive Vice Curator of Zhejiang University Museum of Art and Archaeology, added: “Cave No. 12 is a prime example of the successful partnership between the Cultural Heritage Institute of Zhejiang University and the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute. It is also a paradigm of the fusion between technology and art. Technology can become innovative and creative thanks to art and art can enjoy a rebirth and get disseminated thanks to technology.”

The exhibit also features over 100 artifacts, including stone sculptures, pottery, steles and more, from the collections of the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute. 3D scanning and printing have been used across the world to replicate and help preserve parts of cultural history. For instance, the technology has been used to reproduce a 12th century arch in Spain, as well as to preserve now-destroyed parts of the ancient city of Palmyra.

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