Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan



of an Exhibit

by Timothy Rhue ii

Published on March 01, 2011 , Modified on March 01, 2011

  • Description:

    “In Echoes of the Past, ancient sculptural masterpieces are united with a set of innovative digital components, including a video installation that offers an immersive, kinetic re-creation of one of the largest stone temples.” So claims the temporary exhibition on the Buddhist caves temples of Xiangtangshan currently running at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. I found it to be a surprisingly engaging exhibit that was well designed. The exhibition is quite immersive as claimed, and visually stunning on top of that, though I wouldn’t call it kinetic.

    The exhibition space is a series of rooms laid out in a circular design. At what is both the beginning and the end is a group of three computers. These computers link to what appears to be a website for the exhibit. This site is slimmed down from the official website, but it was very wordy and would work much better in a home environment rather than the gallery. Its presence in the gallery does demonstrate that extra resources are available to extend the exhibit experience at home, but doesn’t work as well in the museum environment. On the other hand, some people were sitting and using the computers for a few minutes so they did get something from the experience.

    Right at the main entrance to the exhibit was a screen showing video from the area around the caves. There was sound with the video, but the volume was turned down so low I couldn’t make out more than its existence. Without the audio narrative, the video was a little disjointed, and I was unsure of its purpose.

    The exhibit space is dominated by massive pieces of statues from the caves that had been chiseled off and sold about 100 years ago. These pieces were recovered and their locations within the two caves were determined using three-dimensional imaging. The exhibit demonstrates an excellent use of space and positioning of the artifacts, which leads to an almost reverential atmosphere. Recreating the original positioning, carved Buddha and bodhisattva heads are located where you must look up at them, and demon statues are positioned subserviently to smaller Buddha and bodhisattva sculptures. In general, artifacts are positioned away from the wall so the visitor can see all sides and get a close view of the objects.

    There were a few touch screens in the galleries with different options on each of them. The first one included exposition on the three dimensional scans used in analyzing the caves. There was the ability to look at the scans of a few artifacts like a Buddha hand. On the touch screen was a picture of the artifact that you could zoom in and out of and rotate in three dimensional space. It was interesting technology and would be intriguing to play with on a website. In the exhibit it was odd because the artifacts, which had been scanned, were in the room with me, and, as great as the scans were, the actual objects were much more fascinating with their realness. I did look more closely at the artifacts because of technology though, and other people stopped and played with the screen for a while, including a security guard at one point. The major benefits of the technology were to engage the visitor in observation of the objects and to expand on the technology that was used by the caves’ researchers. The touch screen also showed where the caves were located by allowing the user to click through from a map of China, to the overall site, to one particular cave, to inside the cave. When the visitor clicks through, the exhibition is given context within the larger world. This feature is something that the technology enhanced and would be much more difficult without that technology.

    Another touch screen, later in the exhibit, showed pictures from inside one cave alongside a floor plan of the cave and a camera icon and cone of vision showing where the picture was taken from. I liked this feature because it gave me a sense of what it would be like to stand in the cave itself. This touch screen also provided pictures of objects in the room with little bull’s-eyes on them that could be touched to give extended information to people who wanted it. All of the information in this display could have been communicated just as easily via wall panel, but putting it in the touch screen saved space and engaged the visitor. More people looked at this information (maybe not all of the information, but at least some) than would have if it was just a side panel in the room. Conserving exhibition real estate via technology somehow added to the atmosphere. Instead of distracting from the artifacts as might be expected, the touchscreen created more of a focus on the objects because there was no wall clutter.

    One room in the exhibition is filled with three huge screens that show a computer generated video of movement through the caves. In this “digital cave,” the camera moves among the carvings and provides a sense of depth. The video is a much more immersive and effective experience than a photograph of the caves would be. This video also shows where particular artifacts from the exhibit were originally located in the caves. The explanation of what was happening in the video was hidden off to the side and few people looked at it, but people did stop and watch the video to see what was going on. I timed some visitors taking a seat and watching for as long as five minutes. I am generally not a fan of video in a museum exhibition because it is often used to be flashy and lacks educational substance. However, this was an excellent use of video that enhanced and expanded the theme of the exhibition. The way the camera moved through the caves gave an excellent sense of how the cave was arranged. The video didn’t need an explanation for the most part, and despite confusing a few people when it showed some wireframe video while trying to explain the three dimensional imaging the researchers did, it helped give a sense of the space of the caves.

    One issue with the exhibit was its inaccessibility to visually impaired visitors. Everything within the exhibit is taken in through sight and the other senses cannot be used at all. There may have been audio assistance somewhere, but it was not posted anywhere that I observed. One way the developers could have dealt with this issue and expand the experience for all visitors would have been the creation of a touchable model of the caves in three dimensions to show where the artifacts were. The location of artifacts in the caves seemed to be a theme of the exhibit, but floor plans can be very confusing, and a model would better demonstrate the layout of the caves to all visitors. Personally, this would have made a stronger impact on me.

    Related to this inaccessibility was the amount and size of the text. It was nice to have a bit of exposition on the artifacts since the subject material isn’t something that a general western audience has the context for, but visually impaired visitors would have had a problem reading it. Even I was overwhelmed with the amount and mostly gave up after the first room. The labels were well written, but could use to be cut down more. I feel this would have led to them being used more.

    Overall, the exhibit is not universally accessible, lacking audio or kinesthetic elements, but the atmosphere and organization for the visual or spatial learner is wonderful. The developers did an excellent job of creating a sense of awe and wonderment within the exhibit. It truly is an immersive experience. They did a good job using technology to explore the technology used in the analysis of these caves. The subject matter covered by Echoes of the Past is often the sort of material that fails to entertain me within a museum setting, but this exhibit did an excellent job of capturing my imagination.

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