The project arises from the discovery in San Rossor, near Pisa, of ca. 30 ancient ships dating back to the 1st cent.BC – 4th cent.AD, and the opening of a new wing of the Han Yangling museum near Xi’an, displaying to the public an archaeological site with several thousands of terracotta figures. Consisting in various experts workshops, training activities, an international symposium and a publication, the project aims at sharing expertise between Europe and China and at a better preservation and presentation of this archaeological heritage to the public.
Underground Museums and conservation “in situ”
Sino-European dialogue through the Han Yanling Museum in Xi’An
The “Han-Pisa” project lies on the will to experiment a new type of dialogue between European countries and China, through training, exchange of best practices and common research. Commonly, indeed, the cultural cooperation involving Europeans and Chinese are based on bilateral agreements and exchange of temporary exhibitions. The partners of Han-Pisa, however, intend to stress the importance of a multilateral cooperation, in order to take advantage of several know-how and experiences, coming from several partners of different countries.
Two major archaeological findings constitute the cultural background of the project. On one hand, there is the discovery in 1999, at the San Rossore site near Pisa, of more than 30 ancient ships dating back to the 1st century BC – 4th century AD, in the remnants of an ancient Roman harbour. While exploiting this unexpected but exceptional heritage, the Soprintendenza for the archeology in Toscany has settled a laboratory studying the conservation and the restoration of the wet wood, and more generally the conservation in humid environments, the “Centro di restauro del legno bagnato”. A decision on how to valorize and how to make this heritage accessible for the public has still to be made. A museum of the ancient Pisa ships has yet to be created, either in the city or directly in the archaeological workplace.
On the other hand, in China, the Han Yang Ling site, next to Xi’an and to the famous King Qi Shi Terracotta army located in Litong, is known by the archaeologists since the 70’s, even though more systematic explorations took place in the 90’s. Although only a small part of the underground pits have been explored so far, the Han Yang Ling site constitutes the most intact and complete burial complex of the Han dynasty, and therefore one of the most outstanding archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. The parts of the tombs which have already been opened give a significant insight of ancient Chinese burial rites and of Han court life, at a level never reached by any other excavation site. The region itself owns a very rich heritage: near Xi’an, thirty imperial tombs from several dynasties were found, the Yang Ling site being the one closest to Xi’an among all the other Han dynasty sites. It contains the tomb of the fourth Han emperor, Jingdi (188-141 B.C., the coincidence being that it comes from the same period than the Pisan Roman ships).
In 2006, the Han Yang Ling museum inaugurated a new wing, entirely based on in situ exploitation, and counting among the most innovative initiatives adopted today in museography throughout the world. Indeed, since the 19th century, museums all over the worlds have progressively transformed their approach to the public, by re-situating the artifacts within the environment which they used to belong to when they were shaped. The conception of the new wing in Yang Ling constitutes one of the most achieved exemples of this approach. The artifacts, there, are not presented in showcases: the excavation site itself was transformed into a showcase, carrying the explanations for the aspects related to the burial of an Emperor as it took place in China thousands of years before Christ. The visitors can immerse in the historical site as it existed in this period, by walking along a path entirely enclosed into glass. Simultaneouly, they can perceive the excitement of discovering relicts: some pits have been left in the same position as when the archaeologists discovered them, and the path sometimes crosses areas where research (isolated from the public) is still ongoing. This aspect contributes to sensibilise the public to the work of the archaeologists and to the necessity of safeguarding historical relicts. Neverthless, the Chinese experts still have to deal with important issues in terms of conservation and restoration, particularly for artifacts requiring a constant high level of humidity, and for the saveguard of the organic materials.
One can therefore understand, from these premises, how the idea of a cooperation between Europeans and Chinese was born: indeed, both needed an exchange of expertise and best practices, respectively in the field of museography in situ and in the field of conservation and restoration of archaeological findings. However, if these two events constitute the background of the project, the partners do not intend to limitate the project to them, whether as case studies or as sole subjects of the project. Rather, they aim at dedicating, more broadly, Han-Pisa to the scientific and efficient dissemination problematics that these events rise but can not include totally. The research aspect, for instance, will be built on the study of a variety of similar examples in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
The two fundamental focus of the project could be summarized as, on one hand, the presentation of cultural heritage to the public (museographical aspect), and, on the other hand, the issues addressing the conservation and the restoration of this heritage (conservation aspect).
May 2008 ► November 2011
Municipalité de Pise [IT], Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau / Han Yangling Museum [CN], Technische Universität München [DE], Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation [BE], University of Pisa [IT], Culture Lab [BE]