The Mellon International Dunhuang Archive

The Mellon International Dunhuang Archive (MIDA) is the product of a major and ongoing multi-institutional, multi-national effort to create high-quality digital reconstructions of the mural paintings and related art and texts associated with the several hundred Buddhist cave shrines in Dunhuang, China, a uniquely important cultural crossroads on the ancient Silk Route in the Gobi Desert. Established in the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang is an oasis town located near the historic junction of the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road, which served as the primary avenue for trade and cultural exchange between China and countries to the west. Dunhuang was also a center for Buddhism, and for a thousand years beginning in the 4th century CE, Buddhist monks carved an extensive series of grotto shrines in the surrounding area. Today, more than 490 caves have been preserved, containing 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and over 2000 sculptures. The monks also collected and copied Buddhists texts and scriptures, which were stored, along with ceremonial paintings and ritual objects, in a secret "library cave" discovered in 1900.

Using digital cameras, a team from Northwestern University, in collaboration with the Dunhuang Research Academy (an organization in China that seeks to preserve and document the caves), has photographed the wall paintings and sculpture in more than forty of the cave grottos. The team has been able to capture intricate details of the cave ensembles, many of which are extremely difficult to see even in situ. The digital images are then digitally "stitched" together to produce two– and three–dimensional visual representations of the cave surfaces and spaces that can be viewed using Quick Time Virtual Reality (QTVR) technology.

A second component of the project involves creating high quality digital images from direct digital photography of the sacred and secular scrolls, manuscripts, textiles and other objects once located at Dunhuang and now dispersed among museums and libraries around the world. Institutions involved in this collaborative effort include: the British Library, the British Museum, the Musée Guimet, the Bodleian Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

A third component of this project involves the digitization of the Lo Archive in Princeton, New Jersey, which contains 2,500 black and white negatives of the cave. They were produced by James and Lucy Lo in the 1940s, using a system of mirrors and cloth screens to bounce light along the corridors of the caves to illuminate the paintings and sculptures within.

Ultimately, the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive seeks to reunite "virtually" and present to scholars a rich body of primary source materials that are relatively inaccessible and difficult to see and study on-site even under optimal circumstances.