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March 2011

The Buddhas are as many as the sands of the Ganges River: Carved inscription at Baodingshan, Dazu, AD 1177-1249

Posted by Dafydd James on 16 March 2011
(c) Dazu Rock Carvings Museum, Chongqing, China
Head of Vairocana Buddha, Baodingshan, Dazu, Southern Song dynasty (AD1174-1252).
(c) Dazu Rock Carvings Museum, Chongqing, China
(c) Dazu Rock Carvings Museum, Chongquing, China
Sakyamuni Buddha, Xiaofowan, Baodingshan, Dazu, Southern Song dynasty (AD1174-1252).
(c) Dazu Rock Carvings Museum, Chongqing, China

May 2010.  I’m standing next to the largest head I’ve ever seen.  Carved in sandstone and painted, it belongs to the vast reclining Buddha at the heart of the Baodingshan cave temple.  Baodingshan, ‘Summit of Treasures’, is the most impressive of the seventy-five rock-carved temple sites that make up the Dazu World Heritage Site in south-west China.  10,000 individual figures populate its 500m-long tree-shaded sandstone cliff, all carved between AD1177 and 1249.

The experience is overwhelming.  I’m astonished by the sheer ambition of this Buddhist complex, by the sophisticated imagination that planned it, by the skills of the artists that fashioned it.  I’m here with colleague Steve Howe to plan an exhibition of Dazu carvings at the National Museum in Cardiff early in 2011, and I’m wondering how we are going to convey the magic of these places to our visitors.

This visit to Dazu was my first time back in China since working there in the mid 1980s.  China had changed hugely, of course, and the pace of change is as breathtaking as the ferociously spiced Sichuanese food (the best in China, in my view) which our generous hosts pressed on us at every opportunity.  The most important things, however – the sociability of the people, their rightful pride in a distinguished cultural heritage – remain undimmed.

Our week’s work with colleagues at the Dazu Rock Carvings Museum developed a warm and trusting friendship, along with the realisation that we had an opportunity to create something really special back in Cardiff.  Dazu, after all, represents the last great flourishing of the cave-temple art form and its treasures of Song-dynasty (AD960-1279) sculpture had never been seen outside China before.

Back in Wales, the whole exhibition team rose enthusiastically to the challenge and, under serious time pressure, captured the serene drama of visiting a rock-carved cave temple.  The exquisite beauty of the carvings, something both spiritual and deeply human, shines out.  From a number of favourite pieces, I would highlight the meditating figure of Zhao Zhifeng, the designer of the Baodingshan complex, and, in complete contrast, the charmingly characterised family group from a tomb complete with serious father, delighted mother and two naughty children.  Pride of place, though, goes to the central Sakyamuni Buddha, whose authoritative dignity greets visitors to the exhibition and provides a profoundly spiritual focus for the whole experience. 

I was particularly pleased to see the delight of our Chinese colleagues at the results, but equally so to see the enthusiasm of so many visitors of all kinds, whether people from Cardiff or China, specialists or local school children.  If the multitude of Buddhist figures and schools of thought, and their interweaving with Confucian and Daoist ideas, all seem like too much to grasp, not to worry.  Just enjoy the spectacle and take heart from another Dazu inscription that expresses the essential simplicity of Buddhist thinking:  ‘to know clearly means that there is nothing to know’.

Andrew Renton, Head of Applied Art, National Museum Cardiff

February 2011

Dazu and confused: an exhausting but exhilarating journey to China

Posted by John Rowlands on 10 February 2011

Having secured the Dazu Exhibition to come to Wales - to venture west for the first time ever - the Museum sent me to China as a facilitator, a friendly face, to meet and greet its people and report back on the full logistics required for transporting these holy artefacts all the way to Cardiff.

This is a diary of memories from the trip:

 The further you travel, the less you know. That line, from Tao teaching, is calling to lay rest my preconceptions.

I reach Dazu late in the evening and after nearly a full day of travelling, cocooned in one small seat after another, happy to have finally finished the journey. My hosts are excited by my presence and have kindly prepared a welcoming dinner. The food arrives as colourful exotic platters, artful dishes with precise garnishes.

Plate after plate upon a lazy Susan, a magic roundabout of smells and flavours so unfamiliar I feel the need for reckless abandonment. I am coached through each course in descriptive detail. Silk worms, pigs gums and the tail of something! Respectfully I enjoy being the entertainment, the toast of this banquet of curiosities.

The next day and I’m standing at the foot of the mountain, my leather soles on ancient well trodden steps. The summit is hidden by dense foliage and cloaked in a playful mist.

Beishan represents the pinnacle of Chinese rock carvings, familiar images from text books are now images of breathtaking artistic, spiritual realization. These exquisite statues project their majesty from 10 meter high walls in commanding elegance, as another niche reveals graceful scenes in rust coloured sandstone magnificence. Truly a day to remember!

Next morning and it’s time to meet the local media. The smell of a thimble size glass of white spirit liquor goes someway in preparing me for the consumption. I know I have to knock it back. Today I’m the toast of the town, and everyone wants a piece of me.

I start with filming for Chongqing T.V and also make the front page of Dazu's local newspaper. I'm feeling the love. It's difficult to recall the interviews, an almost surreal experience of transcendental fragmented English prose, offered in a wide-eyed excitable manner. I must have said the right things - forged a relationship - as an orderly queue waits to raise another glass of white heat to my lips!

Alas, it’s my last night in China. I’m gazing upon the towering skyline of Chongqing with its ever suppressive fog cast neon rainbows across the Yangzi river. Leaving the busy streets behind, the smell of frying tofu and soot, I watch the city unfold from a packed pleasure cruiser.

The huge creative and commercial upheavals that China is undergoing tell of a transition from hard line politics to economic pragmatism. China and the world have much to gain from Chinese openness. I will leave with a fondness for the country and its people.

Lee Jones, Senior Technician, National Museum Cardiff

Respect the world as your self

The world can be your lodging

Love the world as your self

The world can be your trust.


See more Dazu images on Flickr, keep up to date with Dazu on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @museum_cardiff  #dazuwales

January 2011

Dazu: Designing the exhibition

Posted by John Rowlands on 26 January 2011
Dazu Rock Carvings - National Museum Wales
Dazu Rock Carvings - National Museum Wales
Dazu Rock Carvings - National Museum Wales
Dazu Rock Carvings - National Museum Wales

During my time as a designer at National Museum Wales I have had to deal with displays of all shapes and sizes and the Dazu Rock Carvings exhibition provided a unique challenge, especially the heads!

The exhibition features many heavy stone heads, separated from the bodies by historical vandalism as well as some wear and tear (well, they are over 1000 years old!).

The problem posed was how to display them securely and yet in a good position for the viewing public. We also needed a flexible system that is quick: there was only ten days from the delivery to the practical installation!

Some weeks ago we had an idea in the design studio and called on the expertise of Annette and Mary from the Conservation department to discuss the merits of our thoughts.

“What if we set the stones in an expanding foam mould? Would it grip the sculpture securely and hold a display position?”

Mary and Annette both confirmed that if we employed a high-grade conservation material and sheathed the stone with polythene film, the stone would not be affected -in Layman’s terms, it would work!

As the icing on the cake we came up with the idea of adding a fabric layer that would act as the finish, ready for display. A mock up was quickly made and, wow! It worked brilliantly!

Mary and Annette made great progress and the heads were set into pre-made display boxes in a secure lab deep in the bowls of the Museum.

The fabric finish was trimmed and the boxes complete with the sculptures were transferred to the gallery for display with specialised lighting.

The heads joined larger items on specialised plinths and some very delicate carvings within cases. Further ingenious display methods were devised for each and every sculpture to ensure this truly amazing exhibition is as inspiring as possible.

We are all very excited to see this exhibition come together and are sure the public will love it too.

Simon Tozzo, Three Dimensional Designer, National Museum Wales


See more Dazu images on Flickr, keep up to date with Dazu on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @museum_cardiff  #dazuwales

Sacred Dazu rock carvings leave China for the first time

Posted by John Rowlands on 19 January 2011
(c) Dazu Rock Carvings Museum, Chongqing, China
Head of Vairocana Buddha, Baodingshan, Dazu, Southern Song dynasty (AD1174-1252).
(c) Dazu Rock Carvings Museum, Chongqing, China

January 26th marks a special day at National Museum Cardiff as it is the opening day of a very unique and exclusive exhibition.

From Steep Hillsides: Ancient Rock Carvings from Dazu, China is a collection of rare Chinese religious sculptures from the World Heritage site in Dazu.

The very earliest sculpture at the sites date from the mid 7th century and these beautiful carvings depict and were influenced by Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist beliefs.

The exhibition will contain sculpture mostly from the 10th to the 13th century. Eclectically bringing these religions together, they create a highly original manifestation of spiritual harmony and give life to the exceptional Chinese history of this particular period.

Off limits to visitors for many years, the carvings were only opened to Chinese travellers in 1961 and foreign visitors in 1980. The result is that they remain in excellent condition despite their creation centuries ago.

While many of the larger carvings still remain embedded in the cliffs and mountain sides of Dazu, this is the first time the more manageable sculptures have left Chinese shores and travelled West.

National Museum Cardiff will be the only museum outside of China to host this extraordinary exhibition, providing a fascinating insight into ancient rock art and Chinese culture to all those who come and visit.

 

See more Dazu images on Flickr, keep up to date with Dazu on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @museum_cardiff  #dazuwales

December 2010

Face to Face with the Past ... Part Two

Posted by Chris Owen on 10 December 2010

One of the most popular displays at the National Roman Legion Museum is a stone coffin that contains the skeleton of a Roman man. The coffin also contains the remains of grave goods that he would need for their next life, including the base of a shale bowl and fragments of a glass perfume or ointment bottle.

» See Part One

Step 17

Coffin Lid

Now we turn our attention to the coffin lid.

Like the base it was broken by the digger. Here it is with all the fragments lined up ready to be joined. Some areas are missing, but the gaps will allow people to see inside the coffin when it is put back on display.

Step 18

Top of the lid

The top of the lid looks so uneven and eroded because acid rain soaked into the soil has dissolved the limestone. This process eventually leads to the formation of limestone caves in nature. Solution holes, the start of mini 'caves', can be seen in the lid.

Step 19

Drilling the lid

Adhesive alone may not be strong enough to keep the heavy fragments of stone together.

To help strengthen the bond, metal rods will be inserted across the join. Holes have to be drilled into the broken edges of the stone. This is a tense moment as any mistakes could cause further damage.

The stone could split or flake; we just don't know how it will react to the drilling!

Step 20

Drilling the lid

Thankfully all goes well and the drill makes light work of the task.

That pile of stone dust will also come in useful; we can mix it with the glue to help secure the rods.

Step 21

Dabbing paint

Another hole now has to be drilled in the edge of the adjoining fragment; this must match up perfectly to allow the rod to fit across the break.

First stage is to dab paint thickly around the freshly drilled hole.

Step 22

Placing fragment

The fragment is then placed in position and pressure applied.

This has to be done quickly before the paint blobs dry, but also with care as we don't want paint smeared everywhere

Step 23

Imprint

Success!

The paint has left a good imprint on the other fragment, so we know where to drill the second hole to fit the rod.

Step 24

Cutting metal rods

The metal rods now have to be cut to the right length, about 7cm.

This was harder than we thought as the stainless steel is very tough. We had to stop several times as the blade kept heating up.

Only 6 more to go!

Step 25

Aligning the pieces

With the metal rods in place within the join and epoxy glue applied, the two pieces are brought together.

Care is taken to align the edges before the two sections are held in place and the adhesive allowed to set.

Step 26

Stuck together

All stuck together now.

Hopefully the metal dowels will give the extra strength required, especially as we have to move the lid from the workshop in the basement to the gallery upstairs, where at last it can be reunited with its base.

Unfortunately we have no lift....any ideas!

Step 27

The team

The only option is good old fashioned man power just like the Romans!

Here some of the team (our modern day Roman slaves) take a well deserved break after bringing one of the coffin lid fragments up the stairs.

Step 28

Laying the skeleton out

Before the lid is put in place the skeleton has to be laid out again. Being careful to get it right!

Unfortunately one item will be missing for a while and that's the skull. This is needed for analysis as we try and find out more about the man buried in the coffin 1800 years ago.

Step 29

Perspex cover

Once everything is in place a new Perspex cover can be installed to support the stone fragments of the lid.

The Perspex is only 1cm thick so hopefully it will be robust enough to take the weight of the solid Bath stone blocks.

Step 30

Installing the lid

Now the tricky task of installing the lid begins.

Thankfully all goes well and the Perspex proves strong enough to take the weight.

At last, 15 years since its discovery, the lid is once more back where it belongs, on top of the coffin.

Although the lid partially obscures the contents of the coffin, new lights will be installed to help illuminate the interior.

Step 31

Skull

The first phase of the redisplay is now complete, so in the second phase we turn our attention to the Skull.

Follow the blog as we attempt to learn more about the man buried in the coffin.

Where did he grow up and what did he look like?

October 2010

Fish! Conserving fluid preserved specimens for display

Posted by Peter Howlett on 20 October 2010
Hanging the Swordfish
Hanging the Swordfish
Bonito (Sarda sarda)
Trigger Fish (Balistes carolinensis)

For October and November 2010 we have opened a small exhibition in our main hall celebrating the diversity of fish found around the UK. These fish are all from our collections, with the oldest specimens going back to 1904.

To get these specimens usable for display we have had to do some conservation work. This has been as simple as cleaning the glass jar or Perspex display tank, to working on the specimen itself and changing the preservation fluid. How the fish has been preserved can affect its overall appearance and condition, but unfortunately whatever method we use the colour will be lost.

Many of the fish have been preserved in an alcohol solution, usually ethanol, which does result in shrinkage and the fish becoming very stiff. The preserving fluid can also become a very dark amber colour. This is due to materials such as lipids in the fish tissue being extracted out by the alcohol solution. However we know ethanol based preserving solutions work as the practice has been going on since the 1600’s! In more recent years we have found that it can also preserve DNA that is usable in modern molecular studies.

Another common preservative is formaldehyde, commonly called formalin. A diluted solution, usually of around 4% formaldehyde, has been used for over a century now. Formaldehyde causes chemical cross linking reactions in the biological tissues and this is termed ‘fixation’. Unfortunately formaldehyde does have problems, being pungent and potentially toxic to work with.

Some of the fish have also been preserved in a fluid called ‘Steedmans’. This is a mixture of propylene glycol (often used in anti freeze), a phenol (an aromatic organic chemical) and formaldehyde. This can preserve fish shape very well but there are concerns over its long term preservation properties.

For the main hall display all the preserving fluids were checked. All the specimens in formaldehyde and ‘Steedmans’ were moved to a safer alternative. This uses a chemical called DMDM Hydantoin which replaces the use of formaldehyde in everyday products such as shampoos and cosmetics and is much safer to work with.

Some of the specimens themselves needed some cleaning and tidying up. After years in a jar many had a build up of old proteins and fats on their surface. Other specimens had corrosion products on them from old metal tags that had been used for labels. Many of the specimens were also moved to more suitable glass jars.

The end result is an intriguing display highlighting specimens with fishy stories from the museums collections. The aim has been to make the specimens as accessible as possible so that visitors can get a close look at the preserved fish. The exhibition also represents the ongoing work that is required to care for the museums natural history collections for both now and the future.

Julian Carter

Opening up the Collections

Posted by Peter Howlett on 20 October 2010

Final Natural History Open day – Wednesday 27th October 2010

Members of the public will be given an intimate insight into the museum’s natural history collections next week. As part of the International Year of Biodiversity, the departments of Biodiversity and Systematic Biology along with Geology have been holding open days throughout the year to showcase the work that they do.

Museum experts in a wide range of fields, from bugs to beetles, dandelions to diatoms can all be found in the main hall along with a crazy array of critters from the national collections. Visitors can also sign up for a wide variety of behind the scenes tours where they will be able to find out more about the incredible collections that the museum holds and the research that we do.

I will be running tours of the large shell collection, showcasing some of the 2 million shell specimens that we hold as well as explaining some of the work that is carried out by our researchers. Other tours will take you round the Welsh National Herbarium, the amazing vertebrate collections with their primate skeletons and stuffed animals, the insect collections with butterfly specimens over a hundred years old, and the vast array of pickled animals in jars in our marine lab.

This is to be the final open day for this year, so don’t miss your chance! Come and meet the experts and take the opportunity for a unique trip behind the scenes. Book your tour place on the day - numbers are limited to 10-12 people on each tour. Tours are suitable for ages 8 and over, but unfortunately are unsuitable for people with limited mobility because of the stairs involved.

Jennifer Gallichan

September 2010

Face to face with the past - the redisplay of a Roman coffin

Posted by Chris Owen on 28 September 2010
Coffin

One of the most popular displays at the National Roman Legion Museum is a stone coffin that contains the skeleton of a Roman man. The coffin also contains the remains of grave goods that he would need for their next life, including the base of a shale bowl and fragments of a glass perfume or ointment bottle.

The coffin was found in 1995 on the site of a Roman cemetery just outside Caerleon. The cemetery is now part of the Caerleon Campus in the University of Wales, Newport. It has been on display in the National Roman Legion Museum from 2002, however in Summer 2010 we started working to redisplay the coffin in a fashion that is closer to its original form thanks to funding from the Friends of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Made from a solid block of Bath stone, the coffin dates to about 200AD. Since it is around 1800 years old the coffin wouldn’t be able to support the weight of its original lid which is in 2 large pieces. The sides and base of the coffin are being reinforced and the lid will sit on top of a Perspex cover with enough of a gap so that you can see the skeleton inside.

Further work will be done to find out more about our Roman man, who was about 40 when he died. Thanks to funding from the Roman Research Trust, Isotope analysis will be carried out on his teeth which should tell us where grew up and what sort of food he ate. We will also be trying to reconstruct his face so that we can produce a painted portrait of him using the same materials and techniques used by the Romans.

Follow our progress as work proceeds over the next year.

We aim to complete the redisplay by the end of 2011 when you will be able to come face to face with the past!

Step 1

Coffin

The coffin, skeleton and grave goods have been on display since 2002.

In that time it has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery.

Step 2

Discarded items

Gaps in the coffin allowed visitors to push things into the display.

These are some of the things we found, not exactly the sort of thing our Roman would like to take to the next life.

Step 3

Work begins

Work begins. First the skeleton and grave goods have to be removed and stored safely.

While off display the skeleton will undergo further investigation in an attempt to find more about the man buried in the coffin.

Step 4

Painting

All modern materials added to an object must be reversible. This makes it easier to remove restoration without causing damage to the original artefact.

Here a reversible barrier is being painted onto the coffin. This will separate the original stonework from the material used to fill gaps and level the rim.

Step 5

Painting

Even the most awkward places have to be reached!

Step 6

Lid of the coffin

The lid of the coffin must have a level surface to sit on!

Unfortunately much of the original rim of the base has eroded so with the aid of foam, double-sided tape and the glass top of the original display as a guide, we hope to establish a new level for the coffin rim.

Step 7

Layers of foam

Layers of foam were stuck to the flat glass top. When the highest part of the coffin was reached this line was used as the level for the new rim.

Step 8

Mixing up the fill material

Now for the fun bit� mixing up the fill material.

This material must work like a putty and set hard when dry. Also be safe to use in the open gallery and similar in colour and texture to the original Bath stone.

We went for a mixture of air-drying clay, sand to reduce shrinkage and give texture. Acrylic paint for colour and extra bonding. This was a bit of a messy job and it took a while to get the mix right!

Step 9

Filling the gaps

Once the mix was ready the gap between the foam and the edge of the coffin was filled.

Step 10

Filling the gaps

Being careful not to get excess fill material all over the stone.

Step 11

Filling done

Looks good, let�s hope the fill dries without to much shrinkage.

The colour of the fill is a bit light, not as golden as the original Bath stone. The Roman quarry for the stone is believed to be south of the ancient City of Bath. The stone is soft and easily carved when wet, but becomes hard on drying.

Step 12

Inspecting the day's work

Inspecting the days work! Hopefully when the glass and foam is removed the fill will be nice and level.

Step 13

Side of the coffin

The gaps in the side of the coffin have to be filled to prevent access to the skeleton once it is put back on display.

Step 14

Glass top and foam removed

The glass top and foam are removed and the new rim revealed. The fill has dried much lighter than expected so will have to be painted to make it less obvious.

Most of the fill will be hidden by the lid which extends over the edge and down the side. This overlapping edge use to rest on a ridge that ran round the top of the coffin base.

Remains of this ridge can still be seen on the right hand-side of the image just below the fill.

Step 15

Coffin

The coffin was unearthed by a mechanical digger, which broke it into several sections. Most of the pieces were retrieved, but one area was so badly damaged no pieces survived.

Instead of filling the gap to complete the side, we decided to install a viewing window so small visitors to the museum can still get a good view of the skeleton inside.

Step 16

Gallery

The coffin is extremely heavy and could not be moved out of the gallery safely. Therefore, all conservation work has to take place in the gallery, which has been quite challenging at times.

If you are visiting and see us there, come over and say hello, we are happy to answer any questions about the project.

July 2010

'Biodiversity - Who cares?' exhibition now at Cardiff

Posted by Mari Gordon on 22 July 2010
Plant models going on display
The final wax models being placed in the exhibition case.

We’ve just finished setting up the exhibition ‘Biodiversity - Who Cares?’ in the Main Hall at National Museum Cardiff. It’s been a great opportunity for us to show off some more of the beautiful botanical models from our stored collections. The models have been skilfully crafted from beeswax, but you might mistake them for real plants when you first look at them. With around 1000 models in the collection to choose from, our only problem has been deciding which ones to display!

The exhibition has been created by the BioSyB Dept as a contribution to the International Year of Biodiversity. The exhibition looks at some of the ways in which we can help reduce the loss of biodiversity. Look out for this touring exhibition at other Amgueddfa Cymru venues during the rest of the year.

Annette Townsend

April 2009

St Teilo's Church - the blog

Posted by Mari Gordon on 27 April 2009
BBC journalist Garry Owen
BBC journalist Garry Owen launches the book 'Saving St Teilo's'

We had a fabulous event at St Fagans yesterday. The weather wasn't quite with us - damp and overcast - but luckily lots of people were, and very many of them bought copies of the book!

I didn't catch the whole service as I was flitting around with boxes of books, but what I saw was very moving, and it felt intimate and totally natural.

Then a whole load more people arrived for the actual launch. People crowded into the Church and the two main speakers, Garry Owen and Eurwyn Wiliam, both did excellent jobs. Eurwyn spoke about the project from its beginnings, and as he's been involved with the project since its beginning 25 years ago it was a great overview. But, as always, humorous too! Then Garry Owen brought a lovely personal note, as he's a local boy who remembers the Church when it was still by the river Loughour at Pontarddulais. He really emphasised just how iconic the Church was  - and still is - to the local community.

Finally everyone came over to Oakdale, the Workmen's Instititute, for refreshments and we were flooded with people queuing up to buy the book. It was like when you first arrive at a car boot sale! It was also great for me to finally meet some of the book's contributors, people I've only emailed up til now. I guess everybody was enjoying themselves as by 5.30pm some people didn't seem to want to leave!

The rest of the work for me is now to make sure all the relevant bookshops and retail outlets know about it. And making sure it's on the relevant websites. And sending out review copies... In a way, producing the book is only half the job: now we've got to sell it!